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Let NASA Pursue a Balanced Planetary Exploration Program

Congress and the Obama Administration should allow NASA to start a new mission to Europa, ensure that the 2020 Rover caches samples of Mars, and increase the cadence of Discovery-class missions

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
01/28/2013

CONTACT:
Casey Dreier
Email: casey.dreier@planetary.org

The following is a statement on the 2020 Mars rover's role within NASA's Planetary Science Division from The Planetary Society. It was prepared in collaboration with the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences and the American Geophysical Union's Planetary Science Section.

We welcome the recent announcement that NASA will return to Mars in 2020 with a new rover derived from the MSL Curiosity design. Continued exploration of Mars is crucial to the scientific community and important for building upon our decades-long investment in engineering and technology development. However, we strongly believe that the mission should have the capability to collect and store martian rock samples as recommended by the National Research Council's Planetary Science Decadal Survey. It is of the utmost importance that NASA and Congress follow the recommendations laid forth in the Decadal Survey in order to maximize science return and support a balanced and affordable approach to the exploration of our solar system.

We must also emphasize that the serious budget cuts to NASA's Planetary Science Division have not been averted. The new rover mission is conceived to fit within the already reduced budget environment proposed by the Obama Administration in February 2012, which, if fully implemented, would result in deep cuts across the entire planetary exploration program. Likely outcomes include early termination of ongoing missions, including the Cassini orbiter at Saturn and the MESSENGER orbiter at Mercury; delays of future missions in the Discovery and New Frontiers programs; and reductions in basic research grants that fund current and future scientists. It also precludes a mission to Europa, long-considered one of the most compelling and scientifically rich destinations in the solar system. A strategic mission to Europa is prioritized as a close second to a caching mission to Mars in the Decadal Survey. We find the shift in budgetary priority deeply troubling. Namely, it represents a step backwards from our nation's long commitment to exploration and the pursuit of answers to the big questions of “where do we come from?” and “are we alone?”

We strongly urge Congress to reverse these cuts and, at minimum, maintain the 2012 funding level of $1.5 billion per year for the next five years for NASA's Planetary Science Division.

Using publicly available NASA budget data and cost estimates for the Mars 2020 rover and a reduced-cost Europa mission, the top two major mission recommendations of the Decadal Survey could be pursued within a $1.5 billion per year budget, without adjustment for inflation.

Additionally, a flat budget of $1.5 billion would allow NASA to conduct Discovery- and New Frontiers-class missions – smaller, less expensive missions that provide outstanding scientific return – at a tempo closer to the recommendation given by the Decadal Survey: a Discovery mission every three years and the selection of two additional New Frontiers missions before 2022. Proper funding for scientific research and technology development, both crucial aspects of the planetary program, would also be possible. We believe it is vitally important to provide NASA's Planetary Sciences Division with the minimal funds necessary to provide a proper balance between its five key elements: strategic missions, Discovery missions, New Frontiers missions, research and analysis, and advanced technology development. A restored budget could achieve this.

Congress deserves credit for restoring some of this funding in the FY13 appropriations bills taken up last year. While these bills are currently stalled while Congress tackles broader fiscal issues, it demonstrates a strong commitment to the program by both the House and the Senate. A vocal public and a coordinated, focused response by the scientific community provided crucial support for this effort.

We applaud the decision by NASA to pursue a 2020 Mars rover mission, as long as it fits within the specific recommendations of the Decadal Survey and is part of a balanced exploration portfolio. We urge Congress and the Administration to maintain NASA's leadership in planetary science by restoring the division's budget to FY12 levels of $1.5 billion per year.

 

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About the Planetary Society

The Planetary Society has inspired millions of people to explore other worlds and seek other life. With the mission to empower the world's citizens to advance space science and exploration, its international membership makes the non-governmental Planetary Society the largest space interest group in the world. Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman founded the Planetary Society in 1980. Bill Nye, a long time member of the Planetary Society's Board, serves as CEO.

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