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MAX-C rover illustration
Last year’s planetary science decadal study identified as its top priority for “flagship” missions a Mars rover that could collect samples for later return to Earth, like the MAX-C concept illustrated above. Proposed budget cuts could delay such a mission indefinitely. (credit: NASA)

Fighting for Mars

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Earlier this month, Disney released the movie John Carter. Based on the famous Edgar Rice Burroughs tales, it’s the story of a Civil War veteran mysteriously transported to Mars (er, Barsoom) and thrust into a conflict among warring factions there. It’s also turned out to be a bomb for Disney: with an estimated cost of $250 million, the film has grossed less than $65 million in the US since its release (by comparison, The Hunger Games, released just on Friday, has already grossed $155 million) and Disney is expecting to take a $200-million loss on the film. The public, it seems, is more interested in a story set on a dystopian future Earth than an old fantasy about Mars.

So why did planetary get cut so much? “I wish I had a good succinct answer,” said NASA’s Grunsfeld.

Planetary scientists, meanwhile, hope the public’s interest in the real Mars—and the rest of the solar system—is a little stronger. For months, there were rumors that NASA’s planetary program would face cuts in the fiscal year 2013 budget proposal, as evidenced by the agency’s inability to formally commit to participating in the joint ExoMars program (see “An uncertain future for solar system exploration”, The Space Review, November 14, 2011). Those fears were realized when the White House released its budget proposal last month: NASA formally terminated its participation in ExoMars, while the agency proposed cutting its planetary science budget by 20 percent. Planetary scientists and their advocates are now trying to understand why they were cut while trying to mobilize efforts to win back that funding in Congress: stakes arguably higher than the box office performance of a single film.

Why cut Mars?

One question the planetary sciences community has been struggling with is why the NASA’s planetary program, which has racked up an impressive series of successes in recent years, has been targeted for cuts. The program, funded at $1.5 billion in FY2012, would get just under $1.2 billion in the FY2013 proposal. By comparison, other major accounts in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate—Earth sciences, astrophysics, heliophysics, and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)—have their 2013 funds either basically unchanged or increased slightly from 2012.

So why did planetary get cut so much? “I wish I had a good succinct answer,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s new associate administrator for science. He spoke last Monday before an audience of planetary scientists who packed a Houston-area hotel ballroom for a presentation on the agency’s planetary programs and budget during the Lunar and Planetary Sciences Conference (LPSC); others watched a live webcast of the proceedings. They were, understandably, hungry for details on the budget proposal and its implications for their research.

Grunsfeld, a former astronaut best known for flying on three Hubble Space Telescope servicing missions, explained that the administration made the budget decisions before he returned to the agency in early January, so he didn’t know all the details. He did say that the cuts were not meant to be punitive for the cost overruns and delays with the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission or JWST. Instead, he said, that with MSL now on its way (it will land on Mars in early August), the administration decided “planetary would have, I think the words I’ve heard are, a ‘paced development.’”

Speaking before members of the House Appropriations Committee during a hearing on the NASA budget proposal two days later in Washington, NASA administrator Charles Bolden gave a similar explanation. “I understand that the budget pressures require you to make cuts to your science programs,” Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee whose jurisdiction includes NASA, asked Bolden immediately after the administrator finished his opening statement, “but I don’t understand why those cuts are overwhelmingly in planetary science.”

“The area that seemed to be actually in the best shape was our Mars exploration, contrary to popular belief,” responded Bolden, who then went on to discuss the various missions already at Mars, as well as MSL and the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) orbiter, slated for launch in late 2013. The implication from his comments was that the agency perceived planetary to be in better condition to absorb cuts than other NASA science programs.

Bolden defended the decision to withdraw from ExoMars, which was to feature a US-launched European orbiter in 2016, followed by a jointly-developed Mars lander and rover mission in 2018 that would cache samples to be recovered and returned to Earth on later missions. He said that he could not justify participating in such a venture when there was no guarantee NASA would be able to uphold its end of the partnership over the long term, especially since ExoMars was itself not a full-fledged sample return mission. “People think that, by stepping away from ExoMars, we are stepping away from Mars sample return. There was no Mars sample return in the two missions being planned for ExoMars,” he said, later acknowledging that the 2018 rover would be the first step in likely a three-phase effort to collect and return samples.

“Mr. Administrator, I can’t in good conscience support a budget that says that America’s days of leadership in space science are limited,” Rep. Schiff said.

Later in the hearing, Bolden admitted that he originally thought ExoMars was, in fact, a sample return mission, and once he realized it wasn’t his support for the program faded. “You and others fully understood that ExoMars was not a sample return. I was not that smart. I thought ExoMars was a sample return because that’s what the decadal survey said,” Bolden told Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) during an intense exchange between the two. Bolden was referring to the planetary sciences decadal survey final report, released a year ago, which placed as its top priority for large “flagship” missions a Mars rover to cache samples for later return to Earth (see “Tough decisions ahead for planetary exploration”, The Space Review, April 4, 2011).

“It was a successive understanding of our posture fiscally, and a successive understanding on my part of our technical capability,” Bolden said later, “that told me that I could not, and as I told [ESA Director-General] Jean-Jacques Dordain, that I can not in good conscience allow them to continue to think that the United States is going to be there for them on a sample return mission in 2028 that we cannot support, we cannot afford.” Bolden took responsibility for the decision when asked several times whether the decision to terminate ExoMars came from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) at the White House.

Schiff argued that, with human space exploration in a lull until at least later this decade and JWST not planned for launch until 2018, “the Mars program is the key driver of public support for the space program.” Bolden’s explanation did not satisfy him. “Mr. Administrator, I can’t in good conscience support a budget that says that America’s days of leadership in space science are limited,” he said.

Another subcommittee member who is an advocate of planetary exploration, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), also expressed his dissatisfaction with the budget proposal. “The budget that the president has put forward is clearly putting the best days of planetary exploration behind us,” he said. “It’s visionless. It’s just really—I just grieve for my country, I grieve for NASA.”

Both Bolden and Grunsfeld, in their separate forums, emphasized the efforts underway to “reformulate” the Mars exploration program, work being done in cooperation with the agency’s human spaceflight directorate and its chief scientist and chief technologist. “We do have a Mars program line that would allow us to perhaps do some kind of a mission in 2018,” Grunsfeld said at the LPSC event. A team led by Orlando Figueroa, former head of NASA’s Mars exploration program, is starting work on that effort, including how future robotic missions can gain synergies with the agency’s long-term plans to send humans to the vicinity of Mars as soon as the mid-2030s. That planning effort, which Grunsfeld said will soon have its own website and also host town hall meetings, will wrap up by late summer.

Fighting back

Planetary scientists, though, showed no signs of accepting the proposed cut in the budget, which would have far-reaching effects beyond the termination of ExoMars. The proposed cut, along with the “notional” future budget projections that keep planetary science funding between $1.1 and 1.2 billion through 2017, would nix any prospects for a Europa orbiter mission, another high-priority flagship-class mission identified in the decadal report. The cuts would also affect smaller programs: Grunsfeld and Jim Green, the director of NASA’s planetary science division, said that the call for proposals for the next mission in the Discovery program of relatively low-cost planetary spacecraft would be pushed back to fiscal year 2015. (The cut would not affect a decision planned for later this year in the ongoing competition for a Discovery mission, called Discovery-12, with three proposals selected as finalists last year.)

At the LPSC forum, audience members peppered Grunsfeld and Green with questions and suggestions for dealing with the cuts, ranging from cooperation with the Chinese (prohibited by law if NASA funds are used) to lowering launch costs for planetary missions by taking advantage of emerging commercial launch vehicles, like SpaceX’s Falcon 9. On the latter point, Green said NASA was delaying the purchase of launches for the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission as well as the Discovery-12 selection as long as possible “to provide opportunities for the commercial vendors to be able to be on that contract,” a reference to the NASA launch services contract.

Others urged action. Jim Bell, a planetary scientist and president of The Planetary Society, gave an extended and impassioned plea for Grunsfeld and Green to fight the proposed cuts—even if it cost them their jobs. “What we’re asking you to do is what we are all doing, and that is to fight back,” Bell said. “And even if you lose your jobs over opposition to this misplaced budget agenda, it would have been the right thing to do.” That line generated a mixture of laughter and applause from the audience.

“We will all lose,” Grunsfeld warned if scientists started blaming each other for the budget situation. “There is no doubt about that.”

Grunsfeld countered it was better to fight from inside than outside, recalling his experience in January 2004 when, working at NASA Headquarters as chief scientist, he learned NASA would cancel the final scheduled Hubble servicing mission. “I had a really tough night,” he recalled after hearing the news, trying to decide whether he should resign in protest. He said he talked with astronomer John Bahcall, who told him he would have the support of the astronomy community if he left, but if he did that, “there will be nobody inside of NASA to help to save Hubble.” Grunsfeld stayed, and ultimately the servicing mission was restored and flown.

At a “community forum” the following day at LPSC, members of the planetary science community, including representatives of several professional organizations, met to discuss working together to lobby Congress to restore planetary funding. “One of the reasons that planetary got whacked” in the budget proposal, said author Andrew Chaikin, who moderated the session, “is because the planetary community is perceived in certain powerful circles as being weak. We have to have to come together and show that we are not weak.”

For now, those efforts are fairly limited and uncoordinated among the various organizations. The American Geophysical Union (AGU) has a page on the website of its Planetary Sciences Section asking its members to contact their congressional representatives on the issue. The Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) is planning a “congressional visits day” in late May.

Those efforts and others, ranging from calls for op-eds in newspapers to Facebook pages, would seem to run the risk of being uncoordinated and thus not able to provide a strong, consistent message, but representatives at the forum were not concerned. “Don’t just do what we say. Do whatever you can come up with,” advised Laurie Leshin, a former NASA official who is now the dean of the School of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and represented AGU at the community forum. “The idea of letting a thousand flowers bloom is fantastic.”

Panelists did, though, stress the need to avoid criticizing, or suggesting funds be taken from, other NASA science programs. “I want to stress the crucial importance of responding as a united community,” said planetary scientist Steve Squyres, who chaired the most recent planetary sciences decadal survey. “And I do not mean as a community of Mars fans and a community of Europa fans. I don’t even mean responding as a community of planetary scientists. I mean responding as a community of space scientists.”

NASA officials gave the same message as well the previous night. Asked if planetary funds were transferred to JWST, Grunsfeld said that wasn’t the case. “As far as I know, there were no specific trades between programs,” he said. He added, though, that scientists should refrain from the temptation of blaming JWST for their budget woes, since that could undermine support for the space telescope. “We will all lose,” he said, if that were to happen. “There is no doubt about that.”

Wolf suggested savings from commercial crew program cuts could restore planetary sciences funding: “By doing any savings that we could, it would also allow us to continue the Mars program and programs like that.”

Members of Congress, though, may look for funds from elsewhere within NASA—specifically, the agency’s commercial crew development program, for which the agency is requesting nearly $830 million in FY13 (see “Commercial crew in the spotlight”, The Space Review, March 12, 2012). At Wednesday’s hearing Wolf questioned Bolden about the program, wondering if there were ways to consolidate the number of companies involved. “The administration believes that maximizing competition is a cost control measure, however, it also ensures that we will spend hundreds of millions of dollars on companies who will never take crew to the International Space Station” because of technical issues or a lack of demand, Wolf said.

Bolden emphasized the importance of competition to provide assured access to the station and to drive down costs, but Wolf remained unconvinced. If there’s any doubt those systems can provide crew transportation services to the station, Wolf asked, “why should taxpayers spend an additional four billion dollars subsidizing companies to develop these systems when other programs that are meritorious have to be cut?” Later in the hearing, he made an explicit connection between savings from consolidating commercial crew and Mars exploration: “By doing any savings that we could, it would also allow us to continue the Mars program and programs like that.”

At the LPSC community forum, Squyres warned that, as bad as the cuts are now for planetary science, they could get worse. He said he has talked with “various decision-makers” in Washington who “are looking for ways to cut even further” in budgets. “What we must not do is give anybody a reason for cutting planetary even further. There’s going pressure to do that.” That, he argued, requires a united front by planetary scientists. “There is no surer way to give budgetcutters—and there’s lots of them out there—a reason to go after the planetary program than to project an appearance of disunity, disarray, disagreement as to what we should be doing. We must speak as one voice.”

Speaking as one voice will require considerable effort and coordination, not to mention a compelling message that will resonate with members of Congress and their constituents—all of which appear to be in early stages of development. It may also need a single champion who can rally media and public interest in the topic. Hopefully, he or she will be more effective than John Carter.