Environment & Science

Obama budget could ground future Mars missions

A simulated Mars Rover at Walt Disney World Resort may soon be the only Mars Rover left.
A simulated Mars Rover at Walt Disney World Resort may soon be the only Mars Rover left.
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On Monday, President Barack Obama unveils his budget for next year. It contains some bad news for Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Lab and its Mars exploration programs. Local Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff says he’ll fight for the “crown jewel” of the space program.

The president plans to cut NASA’s budget from $1.5 billion to $1.2 billion, with more cuts in the years to come. NASA says it’s “reassessing” Mars exploration, with more money for future human missions.

Schiff met Thursday with NASA chief Charles Bolden. "And I let him know that I think this is completely unacceptable and tragic."

Schiff’s district includes the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He says JPL’s Mars rovers have kept up the public’s interest in space. The Rover websites get “about a billion” hits. "If we want to remain competitive technologically, if we want to continue to inspire people to go into the sciences and engineering, this is one of the ways we’ve been able to do it."

The Rover missions and the GRAIL moon mapping project are funded — for now. That could change when details of the president's budget are released next week.

NASA was supposed to send two more missions to Mars: one in 2016 and one in 2018. Those missions were combined. Now the entire project is likely to be scrapped.

JPL had no comment on the budget cuts.

Schiff pointed to the Webb space telescope, under construction in a Maryland lab. Originally budgeted at nearly $2.5 billion, the long-delayed project now costs more than three times that amount.

He compares the Webb track record to JPL's work on the Rovers. "I think it’s really poor management, among other things, to penalize labs that are run well and are meeting their goals, and reward labs that have major cost overruns and are not as well managed."

Congressman Schiff vows to restore funding once Congress takes up next year’s budget.