Mars Budget Cuts

Exploring another planet is an expensive business. We all know this, but sometimes it hits home harder than others. Today was one of those times. This afternoon at an all-hands meeting of the Mars Exploration Rovers team, we heard about some particularly bad budget news. The situation is this: the Mars Science Laboratory mission is costing more than expected. It is common for this to happen with spacecraft missions because there are so many unexpected difficulties to overcome. Due to the overruns with MSL, the powers-that-be at NASA have decided that, rather than hurt other missions in space science, the money should come from the Mars Exploration program’s budget.

Starting immediately, $4 million is going to be cut from the remaining $11 million in the MER budget for the rest of fiscal year 2008. The remaining $7 million is not enough to operate both rovers on Mars.

The Mars Odyssey mission is also facing a devastating $4 million cut, with the stipulation that the spacecraft must remain safe and operational to be used as a communications relay with landers on the surface. I am not directly involved with Odyssey, so I can’t comment on what has been going on within their team today, but I will say this: if this cut goes through, it will reduce a spacecraft doing revolutionary science at Mars to a communications satellite.

As for the Rovers, it is entirely possible that one of the rovers will be put into hibernation mode from now until the end of this fiscal year (October). Coincidentally, from now until October happens to be winter at Spirit’s site, and the rover was already going to be very limited in its activities. However, “very limited” activities are still scientifically valuable, and are certainly better than none at all. A lot of people are very upset about this.

Not only will this likely eliminate the valuable science from the Spirit winter campaign, it may also result in members of the MER team leaving to pursue other projects with more stable budgets, and some team members may simply be let go to cut costs. Once those team members leave, there is no simple way to get them back. It is possible (but extremely difficult) to recover from a cut and get a healthy budget again, but trained members of the MER team are irreplaceable.

At the meeting today, Steve Squyres made it clear that there are three assets that cannot be replaced and that he is going to fight tooth and nail to preserve: the two rovers and the MER team.

The heads of the MER team also called upon everyone listening not to get negative about these cuts and not to take out our frustration with pot-shots against other missions or against the NASA administrators. Nobody at headquarters or on the teams affected wants to see things like this happen, but sometimes hard decisions have to be made.

The Rovers and Odyssey are extremely successful and extremely valuable missions, returning never-before-seen data from Mars every day. To cut their budgets and halt the science operations of perfectly good spacecraft just to scrape together a little money for a future mission seems like a bad way of doing things. The problem is, if all the money has to come from the Mars budget, there is no way to win. Either you sacrifice current missions to keep MSL on track, or you maintain current missions and delay MSL, and that delay costs more money than you save. All in all, it’s a bad state of affairs.

With all the uncertainty in these events, things may change minutes after I post this. We will be doing our best to keep you up to speed. Check back here for the latest…

Explore posts in the same categories: MER, MSL, NASA, Oddysey, space policy

16 Comments on “Mars Budget Cuts”

  1. aphexcoil Says:

    How about putting up a website where people can contribute money to keep the minimum funding in place that is necessary to keep those little guys moving? $4 million is a lot of money to one person, but on a national level that is a fraction of the total federal budget.

    If 200,000 people each contributed $20 , you’d have your $4,000,000. I’m sure there are a lot more than 200,000 people in the United States that LOVE this mission and would love to see it continue.

    I know I’d donate $20. I’d donate $50! I remember the excitement I felt when they first landed and, to this day, I am floored that they are still functional.

    You and your team have done a wonderful job with this project. I’d go so far as to say this has been one of NASA’s most successful projects. Even if the original 90 day estimated lifespan was conservative by engineering standards, I’m sure you and your team had no idea that they would last this long.

    Good luck! I hope someone takes the time to put up a webpage. Submit the link to some major media outlets and I guarantee that you will get your $4,000,000.

  2. mtPete Says:

    Isn’t it kind of… embarrassing… that philanthropists and sci-tech corporate heads who are worth, in some cases, *billions* of dollars don’t seem to be interested in supporting these programs? Seriously, imagine the publicity and boost to science. Although.. corporate sponsored Mars exploration… well, maybe they can do a better job than our government! Where can I send my $50?

  3. Dan Bowen Says:

    I’m sad to hear this, perhaps amateur scientists could pick up the operation of the rovers if NASA discards them. There’s a 26m dish operated by a non-profit astronomy group in North Carolina, I wonder if this would have the gain required to link with Odyssey or hear the rovers…

  4. Mufasa Says:

    This absolutely PISSES me off. It’s so unbelievable that our government has become so misguided that it can’t realize the usefulness of space exploration and NASA in general. Where are the lobbyists now?
    There’s got to be SOMETHING we can do!

  5. Laird Says:

    I would happily contribute as well. Send it to the public. We might as well take care of it since our inept gov’t can’t.

  6. Ryan Says:

    This really is disappointing in any case, I really would be happy to donate money to see its continuation. When Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars, it seemed like we were doing something, we were going somewhere. With budget cuts, it almost feels like a step back, what can we really do to reverse this?

  7. Dave Power Says:

    Hey, it’s not just the yanks that have an interest in this! I’d gladly cough up a few euros and I know many of my astronomy buddies would do the same.

  8. […] the Mars Rover program is facing $12 million in budget cuts over the next two years. The money is being rerouted to the Mars Science Laboratory […]

  9. Y O'Why Says:

    This is so sad. Realy it is.

    It’s not a lot of money. Just slap your media with a PizzaHut or McD’s logo and you’ll get paid!

    Best of luck. This is proof the world is crap.

  10. joergo Says:

    Since Spirit lands on Mars I´m watching the rovers website almost every day. I can´t belive that NASA want to cut the program. I think many people like me in Germany would donate to keep the rovers alive.

  11. bryan Says:

    you know, the above posters idea about setting up donations to raise the 4 million would probably work. when i ran across the article on digg, there were already almost 5000 people upset by this. it may not be the most respected way to gather money to keep the mission afloat, but im betting there are enough of us out here who are supportive of the mission and would be happy to contribute.

  12. alpha86 Says:

    I whole-heartedly agree with aphexcoil here. I have seen many fund raising opportunities online for stuff far less useful than planetary research! In fact, I would not mind at all attempting to get a site up and running. I know a couple faculty at my University that might like to get involved and also am an officer in another organization that might be interested. I’m looking into a domain name and some other services. Let me know if you would like to participate

  13. termal12 Says:

    Hey, you´ve elected the men.



    “Facts are stupid things.” Ronald Reagan

  14. Hi all, I am in complete concurrence with the rest of you. It is ludicrous to think that intellectual progression would not be a number one priority in any government. Unfortunately, that seems to be the case for ours. I have put together a site: to help rally individuals interested in continuing with the full Rover missions, as well as, assist NASA in any way possible of advancing human knowledge. We need to do something, and it will certainly take all of us to do it.

  15. jsk Says:

    All the latest Federal Budget News

  16. […] för utforskandet av Mars. Under den senaste veckan hotades marsprogrammet av nedskärningar (Martian Chronicles, Astrowebb) som skulle inneburit att en av strövarna Spirit och Opportunity behövt stängas ner […]

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