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NASA budget boosts manned space, cuts Mars exploration

NASA's $17.7 billion 2013 budget request boosts the Obama administration's manned space initiatives and the over-budget James Webb Space Telescope at the expense of robotic Mars exploration, critics say.

The Obama administration is requesting $17.7 billion for NASA in its fiscal 2013 budget--down slightly from 2012 levels--doubling the amount spent on development of new commercial manned spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station and giving a substantial boost to the delayed and over-budget successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Funding for the space station and ongoing development of new rockets and capsules for deep space exploration remains roughly constant, but the agency's hugely successful Mars exploration program will be sharply scaled back, in large part to offset gains in other areas.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden unveiled the agency's fiscal 2013 budget Monday during a news briefing at agency headquarters in Washington. NASA TV

Putting an optimistic spin on the numbers, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said "it's a $17.7 billion blueprint for NASA and the nation to embark on an ambitious plan of space exploration that will take us farther into the solar system than we've ever gone."

"Despite a constrained fiscal environment, this budget continues to aggressively implement the space exploration program agreed to by the president and a bi-partisan majority in Congress."

The budget request represents the opening round in the administration's annual negotiations with Congress over federal spending and while the total for NASA may remain relatively constant, the emphasis given to various programs--and how much money they will receive--likely will change in the months ahead.

As it now stands, nearly $3 billion would go to International Space Station operations, including $1.3 billion for crew and cargo transportation. That figure includes the cost of launching U.S. and partner astronauts on Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Some $830 million is budgeted for the administration's ongoing drive to develop private-sector spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the space station and to end the agency's post-shuttle reliance on the Russians. That is roughly what the administration requested in fiscal 2012, but Congress cut that figure in half, to $406 million, during budget negotiations. How the commercial space initiative will fare this time around remains to be seen.

NASA's fiscal 2013 budget includes $1.88 billion for ongoing work to develop a new heavy-lift booster and ground systems, along with another $1 billion for continued development of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle that will be used for eventual missions to deep space targets ranging from nearby asteroids in the mid 2020s to the environs of Mars in the mid 2030s.

The costly James Webb Space Telescope, NASA's follow on to the Hubble Space Telescope, would receive $628 million in 2013, a $109 million increase over 2012 levels, while Earth and solar science missions would receive $1.8 billion and $647 million respectively, both reflecting slightly increased spending.

But the president's 2013 budget proposal reduces the scope of NASA's Mars exploration program, calling proposed joint missions with the European Space Agency "unaffordable." Overall, the budget would reduce funding for planetary science from $1.5 billion to $1.2 billion with additional reductions expected through 2017.

If approved, the near-term impact would be to force NASA to back out of a 2008 agreement with the European Space Agency to share the costs of two ambitious Mars missions known as ExoMars, which called for launch of an orbiter in 2016 and two rovers in 2018. Along with searching for signs of past or present life on the red planet, the missions also would have tested technologies needed for a long-sought sample return mission.

"Tough choices had to be made," Bolden said. "This means we will not be moving forward with the planned 2016 an 2018 ExoMars mission that we had been exploring with the European Space Agency. Instead, we'll develop an integrated strategy to ensure the next steps in Mars exploration will support science as well as human exploration goals and potentially take advantage of the 2018 and 2020 exploration windows."

Bolden said NASA would focus on "medium-class" robotic missions to Mars, avoiding for now more expensive showcase missions like ExoMars and the Mars Science Laboratory, current en route to the red planet.

Bill Nye, chairman of the Planetary Society, said the "priorities reflected in this budget would take us down the wrong path."

"Science is the part of NASA that's actually conducting interesting and scientifically important missions," he said in a statement. "Spacecraft sent to Mars, Saturn, Mercury, the moon, comets and asteroids have been making incredible discoveries, with more to come from recent launches to Jupiter, the Moon and Mars. The country needs more of these robotic space exploration missions, not less."

Ed Weiler, the architect of the current Mars exploration program, retired as NASA's associate administrator of space science last September, telling Science Magazine he was frustrated by on-going battles with the Office of Management and Budget.

"To me, it's bizarro world," he said an interview with CBS News late last week. "Why would you do this? Theoretically, all agencies work for the same president, right? The President of the United States, President Obama, declared Mars to be the ultimate destination for human exploration. Obviously, before you send humans to the vicinity of Mars or even to land on Mars, you want to know as much about the planet as you possibly can. ... You need a sample return mission. The president also established a space policy a few years ago which had the concept of encouraging all agencies to have more and more foreign collaboration, to share the costs and get more for the same bucks.

"Two years ago, because of budget cuts in the Mars program, I had to appeal to Europe to merge our programs...That process took two long years of very delicate negotiations. We thought we were following the president's space policy exactly. Congressional reaction was very positive about our activities. You put those factors in place and you have to ask, why single out Mars? I don't have an answer."

One obvious reason is the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA's ambitious successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. The observatory's cost has climbed steadily in recent years, primarily due to its technical complexity and management miscues. In 2010, NASA ordered a major management shuffle after concluding another $1.5 billion would be needed to finish the project. The telescope is now expected to cost some $6.5 billion and not be ready for flight until around 2018, some five years later than hoped.

Weiler supports the JWST--he holds a doctorate in astrophysics and was project scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope before he moved into senior management--but he believes the Mars program is being forced to bear an unfair burden.

Over the past four decades, Weiler said, "this country has developed unique capabilities to do something no other country on Earth has been able to do so far, and that is land spacecraft repeatedly on a planet many consider the most interesting, the most Earth-like planet in the solar system and the most likely place life could have existed or may even exist today."

"So, you develop a capability nobody else has, the so-called EDL capability--entry, descent and landing--that took a long time, that took decades. If you let that die, you don't just go out to K-Mart and hire new people to do it again."

Scott Hubbard, a planetary scientist who led NASA's efforts to recover from two Mars failures in 1999, told The Washington Post the proposed ExoMars cancellation is "a scientific tragedy and a national embarrassment."

But Paul E. Damphousse, executive director of the National Space Society, said NASA's budget was a reflection of the fiscal realities faced by all federal agencies.

"This budget for NASA reflects the realities we're unfortunately now facing: 'flat is the new up,' and, while continuing to advocate for increased funding, we'll have to work hard with what we have to achieve our goals," he said in a statement.

"That being said, we will push the administration, Congress, and NASA to meet these goals. The programs of record must come in on schedule and on budget; support for commercial spaceflight must be unwavering; and our Mars program, while undergoing restructuring, must still strive to make upcoming launch windows with relevant missions."