Represent!

Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Mars rover funding is once again in jeopardy

The Obama Administration would rather see NASA focus on manned missions instead of planetary science expeditions such as the Mars rover, Opportunity.
The Obama Administration would rather see NASA focus on manned missions instead of planetary science expeditions such as the Mars rover, Opportunity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

It’s the little rover that could – but next year, maybe not.

It’s been 10 years since the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars. The robotic explorers were built at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Lab. Spirit sent its last message from the red planet four years ago, but Opportunity is still chugging away, currently exploring the “Murray Ridge” on the rim of Endeavour Crater.

But the $17.5 billion budget NASA sent to Congress for next year contains no money for Opportunity.

The White House budget is the first in a long series of back-and-forth negotiations with Congress over the best way to spend space dollars that have become more scarce. The Obama administration would rather see more manned missions rather than planetary science. In the past, Congress has restored funding for planetary science, including the original rover program.

This year, President Obama sent Congress a separate funding proposal that includes $35 million in “Planetary Science Extended Mission Funding” for Opportunity and other projects. NASA describes it as “robust funding” for the highest rated missions. But Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff of Burbank says this separate pot of money for specific programs hasn’t gotten much support on Capitol Hill.

Schiff says allowing Opportunity to die a “lonely, cold death in space” is penny-wise and pound foolish: “You spend hundreds of millions of dollars to get the spacecraft there, the most cost effective investment is their continued operation.”

A spokeswoman for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory says the lab expects Opportunity will be funded "through other means."

The top man at NASA, Charles Bolden, will testify before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee on Thursday. 

The twin rovers were only supposed to last 90 days. Why "penalize these brilliant engineers and scientists," asks Schiff, "for designing something so well?"

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