Mars has given NASA a platform to demonstrate what it does right in the field of unmanned planetary exploration. Spurred by the success of the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, the space agency has entered a golden age of planetary robotics.
But because of budgetary restrictions, NASA’s success may be short-lived. President Obama’s 2013 budget plan slashes robotic space exploration by 20 percent, leaving NASA with $1.2 billion to divide among fiercely competing missions.
Fortunately, the next Mars rover, Curiosity, won’t be affected. It’s already on its way to the Red Planet and should roll across its surface this summer.
Maven, a suborbital probe that will study Mars’ upper atmosphere, is scheduled for launch next year. Assuming they operate as designed, Maven and Curiosity will provide many years of data on Earth’s neighbor.
The immediate casualties of the budget cuts include a 2016 orbiter that would measure gases in the Martian atmosphere for microbial activity and a 2018 mission that would land a probe on the surface, scoop up rocks, and return to Earth with them.
NASA would receive $17.7 billion in the 2013 budget, only slightly less than this year. But it still means that important, knowledge-expanding programs will be delayed. The development of the heavy-lift rocket that will take humans into deep space has been pushed back to the 2020s. The James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s successor, has been put off for six years.
Sadly, the list of postponed missions has more to do with the absence of political will and financial commitment than scientific know-how.
In austere times, every segment of government must take a hit to get spending under control. But Americans shouldn’t let the pioneer spirit that built NASA wither.
NASA exists to explore space and extend the frontiers of what we can know about the universe. It’s incumbent on the President, Congress, and taxpayers to get the nation’s fiscal priorities in order so that NASA can fill our thirst for knowledge and expand our desire to go beyond.