Curiosity and other Mars orbiters threatened by budget cuts


Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

 
The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit.

 
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"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs." --San Antonio Express-News

The proposed budget for NASA in the Trump administrations 2021 budget request to Congress includes significant budget cuts to both Curiosity and several Mars orbiters needed to act as relay communications satellites.

The White House’s 2021 federal budget request allocates just $40 million to the mission, a decrease of 20% from the rover’s current funding. And that current funding is 13% less than Curiosity got in the previous year, said Curiosity project scientist Ashwin Vasavada, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

If the 2021 request is passed by Congress as-is, Curiosity’s operations would have to be scaled back considerably. Running the mission with just $40 million in 2021 would leave unused about 40% of the science team’s capability and 40% of the rover’s power output, which comes from a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), Vasavada said.

In addition, the proposed budget will require a 50% reduction in imaging by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the end to the Mars Odyssey orbiter, and a significant but unspecified reduction in the use of the MAVEN orbiter.

I reported these facts back in March but there is no harm in noting them again.

The question is not whether there should be cuts at NASA. Considering the overall federal debt and annual budget deficit, NASA’s budget should be cut. The question is what to cut. The planetary program, probably NASA’s most successful program, is certainly not the program to cut. Instead, the Trump administration should be cutting the waste and badly run programs, like SLS, that spend billions and accomplish nothing.

If Congress and Trump did this, they could cut NASA’s total budget and still have plenty left over for the commercial manned program — including going to the Moon — and also increase the budget to the planetary program. I’ve been saying this since 2011, and nothing has happened in the past decade to change that conclusion.

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3 comments

  • Call Me Ishmael

    “The planetary program, probably NASA’s most successful program, is certainly not the program to cut.”

    I agree that NASA’s planetary program has been better run and more successful than SLS et al. But that doesn’t mean it never engages in the same types of budget gamesmanship. I recall that the ascent of Mt. Sharp was high on the list of Curiosity’s goals from the beginning. At some point (probably quite early) somebody in the program had a revelation: “Once we’ve climbed Mt. Sharp, we will have accomplished our most visible objective, and we’ll be subject to calls for project termination.”

    At this point I expect the RTG’s to give out before the rover actually reaches the summit of Mt. Sharp.

  • M Puckett

    Buy this magazine or the dog gets it!

  • wodun

    What is the program to cut?

    In a perfect world, one could look at NASA and trim the fat. In the larger budget picture, it is incredibly difficult. Every program is worthy to someone and there are endless worthy things to spend money on. When it comes to cutting our budget, it is impossible to cut things that aren’t worthy of spending money on.

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