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Planetary exploration under threat, says space pioneer

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Immediate past president of the Planetary Society, Lou Friedman, is worried that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is putting NASA’s planetary exploration at risk.

Writing at The Space Review, Friedman – who founded the Planetary Society in 1980 with Carl Sagan and Caltech professor and Mars exploration luminary Bruce Murray – says the threat that the OMB may block plans for joint NASA-European Mars exploration could mean NASA “ceases to explore the solar system and stops looking deep into the universe” for as long as ten years.

At immediate risk, he says, is the planned joint launch of a European Trace Gas Orbiter mission in 2016, along with an astrobiology and rover mission planned for 2018.

Instead, Friedman writes, the OMB is favouring the Space Launch System, the design of which was unveiled in September. While he agrees that heavy lift capability is vital, if platform development is funded at the expense of missions, NASA will have “new launchers that will have nothing much to launch and no results to show the American people”.

With “special interests” – unnamed by Friedman, but presumably the heavy industries that would benefit from a steady flow of SLS contracts – driving the OBM process, Friedman warns that the launcher “will become another federal jobs program”.

By delaying the SLS, he says, both the Mars exploration and the James Webb Space Telescope – “punted” by the administration – could be kept on the books. ®

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