Missions to Mars may be out of reach as funds fade

This photo released by the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif., and produced by the U.S. Geological Survey, shows a color image of the Hellas Planitia region of Mars taken by the Viking Orbiter. Funding to study our solar system will be cut by 20 percent. That's leaving space programs in limbo.

Kai Ryssdal: If all goes well in about three days a private spaceship will dock at the international space station and space will become just another business. This morning a Falcon 9 rocket built, owned and operated by a company called SpaceX launched from Cape Canaveral -- the first step in what could become a billion and a half dollar space station re-supply contract. Given the current state of NASA's budget -- about $18 billion is what the president has asked for for next year -- space programs are having to do more, or the same, with less. That's the space station and studying the rest of the solar system as well.

Rowan Moore Gerety reports.


Lauren DeFlores: Right now, we're in the middle of the operation readiness test for MSL.

Rowan Moore Gerety: MSL -- that's the Mars Science Laboratory. It's the signature project of the Jet Propulsion Lab, a NASA center just outside Los Angeles. Lauren DeFlores is an engineer preparing for the August 5th landing of a rover on Mars. JPL is the global hub for planetary science, and researchers from all over the world come here to work. But planetary science programs are facing $300 million cuts.

Jim Bell: That would be the largest reduction ever in the planetary science budget.

Jim Bell is a planetary scientist who teaches at Arizona State University. He's worked on a number of JPL missions.

Bell: It would directly impact the kinds of missions that we're doing now -- to Mars, Saturn, Mercury, and other places around the solar system -- and it would prevent us from doing the next steps that the scientific community wants to do.

The next big step is "sample return." That means bringing pieces of Martian rock back to Earth. But after Obama's budget announcement, NASA pulled out of two future Mars missions planned in partnership with the European Space Agency. So what's the point of sending rovers to Mars, anyhow? Mainly to answer this:

David Bowie singing "Is there life on Mars?"

Or, was there life on Mars. Though there's no hard evidence yet -- a lot of planetary scientists believe we're on the verge of a major discovery. As the U.S. cuts funding, other countries are stepping in to find out.

Bell: The Europeans have approached the Russians, and the Russians said yes.

Already, budget cuts in 2011 led JPL to lay off 250 people.

Richard O'Toole: Once they leave JPL, even if the program is restored, the chances of them coming back is slim.

That's Richard O'Toole, who manages the Office of Legislative Affairs at JPL.

O'Toole: Our concern is over the skill base. Basically, America has invested a lot of money in learning how to land on Mars. We think we have a team that can continue to do that, and it's threatened if nothing changes in the president's budget.

Even if the lab manages to avoid further layoffs, Bell says that planning on an election cycle is impractical for the long-term projects that are JPL's specialty.

Bell: It'll take a spacecraft 5, 6, 8, 10, 15 years to get to the outer solar system. If the outlook for planetary exploration funding in the future is dim, the really smart, clever engineers and scientists and managers that work at places like JPL aren't going to stay in the field.

Congressman Adam Schiff represents JPL's district in the House. He says the budget may still change substantially as it moves through Congress. But...

Schiff: This is an environment of seriously diminished resources generally, and we're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars, and that's no easy task.

Scientist Bell believes the research is worth it even if we can't always find the answers we're looking for.

Bell: I believe a great society has to do difficult, intangible, inspirational things, and exploring space is one of them.

Difficult, inspirational projects can also lead to budget shortfalls. NASA's cost overruns in building the Hubble's successor, the James Webb telescope, may be responsible for some of JPL's current financial woes.

In Los Angeles, I'm Rowan Moore Gerety for Marketplace.

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