The U.S. Administration is proposing a budget for Fiscal Year 2013 that would force NASA to walk away from planned missions to Mars, delay for decades any flagship missions to the outer planets, and radically slow the pace of scientific discovery, including the search for life on other worlds.
NASA's planetary science program is being singled out for drastic cuts, with its budget dropping by 20 percent, from $1.5 billion this year to $1.2 billion next year. The steep reductions will continue for at least the next five years -- if the Administration's proposal is not changed. This would strike at the heart of one of NASA's most productive and successful programs over the past decade.
"The priorities reflected in this budget would take us down the wrong path," said Bill Nye, CEO of the Planetary Society. "Science is the part of NASA that's actually conducting interesting and scientifically important missions. Spacecraft sent to Mars, Saturn, Mercury, the Moon, comets, and asteroids have been making incredible discoveries, with more to come from recent launches to Jupiter, the Moon, and Mars. The country needs more of these robotic space exploration missions, not less."
Fallout from the threatened budget cuts is forcing NASA to back out of international agreements with the European Space Agency (ESA) to partner in the Mars Trace Gas Orbiter, planned to launch in 2016, and threatens the ExoMars rover, set to launch in 2018. Without NASA to provide launches and critical equipment, Europe has turned to Russia to keep the missions alive by becoming its partner in the missions.
If Congress enacts the proposed budget, there will be no "flagship" missions of any kind, killing the tradition of great missions of exploration, such as Voyager and Cassini to the outer planets. NASA's storied Mars program will be cut drastically, falling from $587 million for FY 2012 to $360 in FY 2013, and forcing missions to be cancelled. The search for life on other potentially habitable worlds -- such as Mars, Europa, Enceladus, or Titan -- will be effectively abandoned.
"People know that Mars and Europa are the two most important places to search in our solar system for evidence of other past or present life forms, said Jim Bell, Planetary Society President, "Why, then, are missions to do those searches being cut in this proposed budget? If enacted, this would represent a major backwards step in the exploration of our solar system."
"I encourage whoever made this decision to ask around; everyone on Earth wants to know if there is life on other worlds," Bill Nye, CEO of The Planetary Society, said. "When you cut NASA's budget in this way, you're losing sight of why we explore space in the first place."
"There is no other country or agency that can do what NASA does—fly extraordinary flagship missions in deep space and land spacecraft on Mars." Bill Nye said. "If this budget is allowed to stand, the United States will walk away from decades of greatness in space science and exploration. But it will lose more than that. The U.S. will lose expertise, capability, and talent. The nation will lose the ability to compete in one of the few areas in which it is still the undisputed number one."
To solve the problem and put science back on track, The Planetary Society recommends that the budget be rebalanced among NASA's directorates to reflect value to the nation, and that the share of NASA's budget devoted to the Science Mission Directorate be increased to a minimum of 30 percent. This percentage would keep on track NASA's world-class science with rigorously selected missions with clearly defined goals and carefully crafted plans that are ready to proceed.
NASA's proposed top-line budget for FY 2013 is $17.7 billion, with Science at $4.9 billion (or about 27.5 percent). Increasing that share up to 30 percent would provide enough funding to keep scientific exploration healthy. Mars missions could be restored to the agency's plans, and work on future flagship missions, such as Mars Sample Return or a Europa Orbiter, could move forward.
"How many government programs can you think of that consistently fill people with pride, awe, and wonder? NASA's planetary exploration program is one of the few, and so it seems particularly ironic and puzzling that it has been so specifically targeted for such drastic budget cuts," Jim Bell commented.
"Now that the budget is out, The Planetary Society will mobilize its tens of thousands of members and supporters in the fight to restore science in NASA to its rightful place," Jim Bell said. "We will work with Congress to advocate a balanced program of solar system exploration with exciting and compelling missions that are supported by the public—who ultimately are the ones paying for everything NASA does."