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Mars exploration takes a hit in new NASA budget




NASA Director Charles Bolden tours JPL in Pasadena with JPL scientist Fuk Li. NASA is slated to cut their budget by $300 million.
NASA Director Charles Bolden tours JPL in Pasadena with JPL scientist Fuk Li. NASA is slated to cut their budget by $300 million.
Sanden Totten/KPCC
NASA Director Charles Bolden tours JPL in Pasadena with JPL scientist Fuk Li. NASA is slated to cut their budget by $300 million.
Bolden addresses the team members in mission control for the Mars Science Laboratory mission.
Sanden Totten/KPCC


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NASA Director Charles Bolden traveled to Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena Wednesday to discuss budget cuts.

NASA’s total budget would be $17.7 billion, a slight drop from last year. But some projects will be hit harder than others. The planetary sciences division — in charge of sending probes and rovers to places like Mars — is slated to lose $300 million. That’s 20 percent of their total budget.

Bolden said that means NASA will scale back some missions to Mars – but he hopes to keep the staff at JPL in place.

"There are a lot of things about going to other planets that nobody else knows, except here," said Bolden. "And you can’t step away from it for several years and say we are ready to go do it now. So we have a number of things in our favor and a number of things that are really challenging to us."

NASA will have to scrap plans to partner with the European Space Agency for a pair of missions to Mars. The project, known as "ExoMars," hoped to send an orbiter in 2016 and a rover in 2018. JPL was going to be a big part of the collaboration, but now they are backing out.

NASA’s Charles Bolden says he’s working with JPL to develop a cheaper project that still launches in that time frame. He noted that around the year 2018, the Earth will orbit slightly closer to Mars than usual, making it a prime window for a launch. “It takes less energy to leave the planet to get there than it would at any other time. And that opportunity comes once every 14 years. So it’s really critical that we don’t miss that window — but that we accomplish as many of the objectives as we set out, as we had planned to do in the previous program,” he said at JPL.

Other projects might have to be scaled back too, but at least for the next nine months JPL will continue operating at full force. JPL employees expect their highest-profile mission – the Mars Science Laboratory - to touch down on the red planet this August.

The possibility of layoffs after that still looms, however. Though Bolden said NASA would try to find ways to keep the crew working, JPL officials have said if nothing changes, a few hundred workers could lose their jobs. Last fiscal year, when JPL lost $50 million in their budget, more than 200 workers were let go.

Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University mentioned that NASA's continuous budget cuts could be difficult to recover from in the future. “Really skilled people want to have challenges and want to do good things and they go elsewhere. Once you lose a skilled team, for example, one that is experienced in landing instruments and robots in Mars like JPL has, it’s very, very difficult to rebuild that capability," Pace said.