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Mars, Europe losers in Obama's 2013 NASA budget

Winners: Hubble's successor, high-flying humans

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President Obama has revealed his proposed 2013 budget, and buried inside the $3.8-trillion wish list – along with tax credits for students, tax increases for the wealthy, cuts to the military, and other Republican bait – is $17.7bn for NASA that brings good news to some and bad news to others.

First, the good news for sky-watcher: "Following a thorough management and technical review," reads NASA's section of the budget narrative, "the Budget funds the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble, to enable a launch later this decade."

Next, the bad news for fans of the Red Planet: "Some important, but currently unaffordable missions are deferred, such as large-scale missions to study the expansion of the universe and to return samples from Mars," the budget narrative reads.

In a statement outlining NASA's response to Obama's proposed budget, the space agency's administrator Charles Bolden explained, "This means we will not be moving forward with the planned 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions that we had been exploring with the European Space Agency."

Sorry, ESA – the US has decided that working with you in the immediate future on the exploration of Mars is "unaffordable". However, NASA's MAVEN Mars-atmosphere-studying spacecraft, which Bolden called "well into development," is not on the chopping block, and remains scheduled for launch in November of next year.

All in all, the $17.7bn NASA budget is essentially flat from this year's – just about 0.3 per cent less than the 2011 budget that Congress (finally) approved last November. But one part of the budget – planetary science – takes the biggest hit, with a cut from $1.5bn this year to $1.2bn next.

Understandably, The Planetary Society's CEO Bill Nye is less than pleased. In a release entitled "Science Pushed to the Brink" he says: "The priorities reflected in this budget would take us down the wrong path. Science is the part of NASA that's actually conducting interesting and scientifically important missions."

Citing successes in explorations of Mars, Saturn, Mercury, the Moon, comets, and asteroids, and reminding his readers that more good science is expected from recent launches to recent launches to Jupiter, the Moon, and Mars, Nye argues that "The country needs more of these robotic space exploration missions, not less."

Planetary Society President Jim Bell is equally indignant. "People know that Mars and Europa are the two most important places to search in our solar system for evidence of other past or present life forms," he says. " "Why, then, are missions to do those searches being cut in this proposed budget? If enacted, this would represent a major backwards step in the exploration of our solar system."

What the budget will fund at the expense of more scientific studies of our planetary neighbors will be more money spent on putting humans in space, including heavy-lift capabilities ($1.88bn), the Orion crew capsule ($1.0bn), partnerships with private companies for low-earth-orbit space ferries ($830m), and support for the ISS ($3.0bn).

"This budget provides the funding needed to bring our human space launches back home to the US," NASA's Bolden said, "and get American companies transporting our astronauts once again."

Bolden, of course, waved the "jobs" talisman, as every US official must during the painfully slow recovery from the Great Recession. "We do many things in space," he said; "spending US tax dollars is not one of them. Every dollar spent on space exploration is spent right here on Earth. This budget in-sources jobs, creates capabilities here at home – and strengthens our workforce."

That said, NASA plans to reduce the size of its workforce by 250 during its coming fiscal year.

You can download a copy of NASA's budget presentation here, take a deep dive into the minutiae of the entire NASA budget here, or – should you be a true glutton for punishment – grab a copy of Obama's entire 256-page 2013 budget narrative here. ®

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