In last week’s issue of The Space Review, I reported on some Mars scientists were concerned about the long-term future of the exploration of the Red Planet, given shifting NASA priorities and funding. While the near-term picture looks promising, with the arrival of the Phoenix lander in two months and the planned 2009 launch of the Mars Science Laboratory, the picture beyond 2009 looks rather fuzzy. NASA officials, including Mike Griffin, have defended the cuts in the five-year budget plans for NASA by saying that Mars exploration is being rebalanced to help support other science programs, like outer solar system exploration, that have not fared as well as recent years.
Now it appears NASA’s Mars programs are facing some short-term pain as well. SPACE.com and the AP report that NASA has asked the Mars Exploration Rover program to cut $4 million from its budget for the remainder of FY2008. That likely means that the Spirit rover will remain in an extended hibernation period after the winter ends, instead of resuming scientific work. That cut could be extended into FY2009. SPACE.com added that the Mars Odyssey orbiter, launched in 2001, is “on the cost-cutting table” as well.
Some will argue that the rovers, on the surface for over four years each, have long exceeded the planned 90-day missions, and that Spirit in particular is not in the best of shape, suffering from a stuck wheel that impairs the rover’s mobility, so these cuts are not catastrophic. However, don’t be surprised if there’s some vocal opposition—among scientists, advocates, and supporters on Capitol Hill—to these proposed cuts in the days and weeks to come. Whether that will make any difference, though, remains to be seen.
Update 3/25 7:30 am: After those initial reports, NASA spokesmen told CNN and the Pasadena Star-News that “shutting down of one of the rovers is not an option,” although they confirmed that the order to cut the program’s budget had been issued. “The rovers program will continue and not one rover will be impacted by this budget challenge, period,” spokesman Dwayne Brown told the Star-News. One wonders, if these statements are accurate, if the rover program is playing a version of the “Washington Monument strategy”: claiming a high-profile program will be affected if a budget cut is enacted.