In its budget submitted to Congress Feb. 13, the Obama administration zeroed out funding for NASA’s future Mars exploration missions. The Mars Science Lab Curiosity is en route to the red planet, and the nearly completed small Maven orbiter, scheduled for launch in 2013, will be sent, but that’s it. No funding has been provided for the Mars probes planned as joint missions with the Europeans for 2016 and 2018, and nothing after that is funded, either. This poses a crisis for the American space program.
NASA’s Mars exploration effort has been brilliantly successful because, since 1994, it has been approached as a campaign, with probes launched every biennial opportunity, alternating between orbiters and landers. As a result, combined operations have been possible, with orbiters providing communication links and reconnaissance guidance for surface rovers, which, in turn, could conduct ground-truth investigations of orbital observations. Thus, the great treks of the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, launched in 2003, were supported from above by MarsGlobalSurveyor (MGS, launched in 1996), MarsOdyssey (launched in 2001) and MarsReconnaissanceOrbiter (launched in 2005). But after serving 10 years on orbit, MGS is lost, and if we wait until the 2020s to resume Mars exploration, the rest of the orbiters will be gone as well. Moreover, so will be the experienced teams that created them. Effectively, the whole program will be wrecked, and we will have to start again from scratch.
Furthermore, if the administration’s cuts are allowed to prevail, we not only will destroy America’s Mars exploration program but will derail that of our European allies as well. The 2016 and 2018 missions have been planned as a NASA/European Space Agency joint project, with the Europeans contributing more than $1 billion to the effort. If America betrays its commitment, the European supporters of Mars exploration will be left high and dry, and both the missions and the partnership will be lost.
When, on Oct. 26, I revealed the administration’s plans for this wrecking operation in the pages of this newspaper, I was widely attacked by Obama supporters. Cutting short NASA’s most successful program would be insane, they said, and so claims that such a move was in the works could not possibly be true.
Alas, they were only half right. The cuts are nuts, but that has not deterred the administration - quite the contrary. When NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. was quizzed recently by Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat, on the rationale for the move, Mr. Bolden replied that the cuts were done becausetheMarsprogramwashighlysuccessful. (I am not making this up.)
The scientific community is understandably outraged. Ed Weiler, the NASA associate administrator for science, a 33-year agency veteran, resigned his post in disgust. To take his place, Mr. Bolden appointed John Grunsfeld. As NASA chief scientist under former Administrator Sean O’Keefe, Mr. Grunsfeld gained notoriety by acting as public and congressional advocate for Mr. O’Keefe’s attempt to abandon the Hubble Space Telescope, even while acknowledging to others in the technical community that his testimony had no rational foundation. Continuing in this tradition, Mr. Grunsfeld told the members of the science committee of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) this month that because they are “temporary government employees while sitting on NAC” they “are not allowed” to criticize the Mars mission cuts (i.e., “Shut up”).
The Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG), a broader scientific advisory panel, could not be silenced so easily. It issued a statement saying that its members are “appalled.” To placate them, Mr. Grunsfeld put forth the following consolation: In 2016, instead of sending a real exploratory probe to the red planet, NASA will have a group of astronauts on the International Space Station pretend that they are flying to Mars. (I am not making this up, either.) Does anyone remember the song “Paper Moon?” “It wouldn’t be make-believe, if you believed in me.” Apparently this is now NASA’s theme.
So what is going on? Cost is not the issue. With the Europeans putting up their share, a matching $1 billion contribution from NASA spread over the next six years would be sufficient to fund both the 2016 and 2018 missions at a level of $1 billion each. This would require less than 1 percent of NASA’s current budget. There is no excuse for not doing this.
Indeed, what is truly remarkable about the Obama administration’s NASA management is that it has managed to wreck both the human-spaceflight program and the robotic planetary exploration effort without saving any money. In 2008, NASA’s spending was $17.4 billion; this year’s budget is $17.7 billion. Yet in 2008, NASA was running an active space shuttle program, preparing for the critical mission to save the Hubble Space Telescope, developing systems for returning astronauts to the moon by 2019, building the Curiosity and Maven Mars probes and planning an orbiter for Jupiter’s moon Europa. Toda,y the shuttles are gone, the moon program is gone, and this decade’s Mars and Jupiter probes are gone - all without saving a nickel. In terms of damage done per dollar cut, it may be a world’s record.
There has long been a school of thought among liberals contending that space dollars would be “better spent on Earth” (actually, all space dollars are spent on Earth) to meet the expenses of various social programs. This is an arguable proposition, but as NASA’s flat budget plan shows, it is not the motive behind the administration’s move against planetary exploration. So the question must arise: Why are they doing this?
Perhaps the answer is provided by an examination of the core beliefs of the president’s science adviser, John P. Holdren. In his 1971 book, “GlobalEcology,” co-authored with anti-human-growth ideologue Paul R. Ehrlich (of “PopulationBomb” fame), Mr. Holdren wrote:
“When a population of organisms grows in a finite environment, sooner or later it will encounter a resource limit. This phenomenon, described by ecologists as reaching the ‘carrying capacity’ of the environment, applies to bacteria on a culture dish, to fruit flies in a jar of agar, and to buffalo on a prairie. It must also apply to man on this finite planet.”
Thus, in order to accept the constraints on human aspirations demanded by Mr. Holdren, Mr. Ehrlich and their co-thinkers (whether rationalized by alleged limits to available resources in the 1970s or by the putative threat of global warming), people must be convinced that the future is closed. The issue is not that resources from space might disrupt the would-be regulators’ rationing schemes. Rather it is that the idea of an open future with unlimited resources and possibilities undermines the walls of the mental prison the would-be wardens of mankind seek to construct.
Ideas have consequences. If the idea is accepted that resources are limited, then human activities must be severely constrained, and someone must be empowered to enforce the constraining. But if it is understood that the possibilities for human existence are as open as unfettered human creativity can make them, then the protection of liberty becomes the first responsibility of government.
The stakes are thus very high. That is why, consistent with his beliefs, Mr. Holdren has overseen the reduction of NASA’s Mars exploration budget from $620 million in 2008 to $360 million next year (nearly all of which will go to running George W. Bush administration legacy missions). At the same time, he has boosted Earth science funding from $1.27 billion to $1.80 billion over the same period - a form of research that is massively redundant given the scores of satellites, thousands of aircraft and balloons, and sea and ground stations taking millions of daily measurements on or above every part of the globe already.