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Mars Curiosity has landed, but the battle for JPL's budget is just taking off

Don't get too excited. Mars Curiosity has been a big success, but there might not be much money for missions in the future.
Don't get too excited. Mars Curiosity has been a big success, but there might not be much money for missions in the future.
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We successfully landed a one-ton nuclear-powered robot car on a planet over 300 million miles away, using a rocket skycrane. Now Mars Curiosity has, in just a few weeks, beamed panoramic pictures of its new red world back to Earth, zapped a rock with a laser, wiggled its wheels as a precursor to its first spin on the Martian surface, and then gone for a plutonium-powered drive.

Everything is going great!

Except that back home, it isn't. They were high-fiving in their powder-blue polo shirts at Jet Propulsion Lab mission control in Pasadena, when Curiosity signaled that it had not become a $2.5-billion flame out or a smoldering hole in Gale Crater. But the future of "planetary science," with a focus on Mars, is in doubt, as science takes a back seat in NASA's budget.

Will public opinion infuence NASA's budget?

President Obama's 2013 budget proposal, unveiled in February, keeps NASA's funding flat at about $17.7 billion. Mars exploration will be cut, however, by $300 million, with money diverted to the over-budget James Webb Space Telescope. Congressman Adam Schiff, a Democrat who's 29th district is home to JPL, isn't happy about this.

"The top priority of planetary scientists around the country is Mars and bringing a sample back," he told me by phone, alluding to two Curiosity follow-up missions, a collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency, that would return a sample of Mars' geology to Earth. Both those missions were scrubbed. "Simply put, the crown jewel of the U.S. planetary science program is hanging by a budgetary thread," Schiff wrote in an op-ed for the Press Democrat on August 13.

Schiff told me that NASA should listen to the public, which he insists strongly supports the space program, regardless of whether it's sending robots to Mars or astronauts to the International Space Station. As for the budget cuts, he points a finger at the usual suspects: big companies contracting with NASA.

"It was louder voices at the table, the powerful private-sector industries competing for dollars," he said, while reporting that he has raised the issue of funding cuts to planetary science with NASA administrators. And who are those private-sector giants throwing their weight around? Boeing and Lockheed Martin combined in 2010 to gobble up roughly $6.3 billion of of the total NASA budget — a budget that was about the same size, at $17.5 billion, as what the President has asked for in 2013.

Schiff said that NASA plans to invest in "commercial crew" — funding private manned missions, of the sort that Elon Musk's SpaceX wants to mount to the Space Station — and "heavy lift," or really big rockets that can send astronauts into orbit, and ultimately to Mars.

"But we don't want to starve other critical aspects of NASA," he said. "We don't want to build a heavy-lift vehicles and then have nowhere to go. If we can't figure out how to get a sample back from Mars, how are we going to get people back?"

As the Obama 2013 NASA budget has worked its way through the system in Washington, the House has restored $100 million of the cuts, while the Senate has put back $88 million. "And with the success of the Curiosity mission, NASA will be under immense pressure to fund planetary science," Schiff added.

We need a long-term plan for humans on Mars

Scott Pace, the Director of the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University's Elliot School of International Affairs, agreed that public support — and pressure — to restore Mars science funding at JPL is important. And it's particularly important to...JPL employees. Almost 250 were laid off last year, with potentially hundreds more headed for layoffs if funding isn't restored. The lab didn't respond to requests for comment on the budget situation — which is understandable, given that its scientists are busy operating a complex robot hundreds of millions of miles from home.

"Public enthusiasm is always good to have," Pace said. "But these missions are funded for long-term science reasons. And Congress tends to follow the administration. If the administration doesn't lead, it's doubtful that Congress is going to do any more than work at the margins."

Pace also expressed doubts about whether NASA and JPL really know what to do next with Mars. A sample return makes sense, but he pointed out that even the spectacular success of Curiosity only underscores how difficult it will be to land humans on the red planet. "You have a problem as you go up in size," he said, estimating that a human lander would weight 30-40 metric tons (35-45 U.S. tons). Setting that down on Mars with rockets would mean bringing a lot of fuel, complicating an already complicated — and expensive — undertaking.

Meanwhile, the quest to explore Mars continues. Last week, NASA said that it would be sending a much cheaper mission to the planet in 2016. The $425-million InSight probe will drill a 16-ft. hole in the Martian ground. Gradually, we're populating Mars with an assortment of robots.

Paying our own way in space

But Pace thinks that debates over the future of JPL and planetary science funding should clearly define what the plan is for humanity's future in space. Will we be able to pay our own way, entrepreneurially "living off the land," as he puts it, making use of resources as we go? Mining asteroids? Or will always be depending on government funding? 

"If you can't get people living and working in space, it becomes a form of Mt. Everest," he said, pitting space as region of economic profit against space as a tourist destination. But even though two completely different futures confront us as we reach for the stars, Pace doesn't think we should back off from using robotic mission to pave the way for humans to travel to other planets. "We won't know until we explore," he said. "Exploration is about answering the really big questions. And if we do have a future in space, I want Americans to be there."

In the end, Curiosity — or rather the Mars exploration program that it now symbolizes — may be a victim of its own success. It was budgeted at $1.6 billion in 2006 and ended up costing a billion more. That still about $10 billion less than what a new Gerald R. Ford class of (over-budget) U.S. aircraft carriers will each cost. But if we've learned that we can land ever-more ambitious rovers on Mars, we've also learned that the red planet always seem to wind up costing more to visit than we think it will.

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter. And ask Matt questions at Quora.