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NASA U-Turn Over Mars Rover Funding

Relieved. MER Spirit (credit: NASA, edited by Ian O'Neill)
No sooner had news hit the web that NASA had cut funding to the Mars Exploratory Rovers (MER), NASA took a huge U-turn and voided the letter that was sent to MER mission scientists. Apparently both Spirit and Opportunity can continue to roll around the Mars landscape as if nothing had ever happened; in fact the two robots will probably be unaware of the drama that unfolded here on Earth in the last 24 hours. Talk about a storm in a teacup…

But what caused the change of heart? What was behind all this funding craziness? Unfortunately, this ordeal highlights the pressures government-funded space agencies are under, and it is unlikely this will be the end of it…

You could almost hear the news sites and blogs rumble to life last night as the news surged through the web about NASA needing to cut $4 million from the MER program. Reports flooded in that the rover scientists were shocked and saddened by this surprise turn of events, the whole world seemed to react. Every other story on Digg.com showed a new article about the budget cut, and looking through the comments, most reactions were of shear disgust about the short-sightedness of the government funded space agency. After all, Spirit and Opportunity represent the most successful robotic planetary mission ever; to simply switch one of them off seemed like a crime. Rushing to the keyboard I posted my five cents worth on the Universe Today, thinking to myself “this is insane”, but wondering why it was happening.

Spirit and Opportunity landed on the Red Planet in 2004 and were only expected to live for a few months. The previous successful rover, Sojourner (of NASA’s Pathfinder mission in 1997), was expected to last for a couple of weeks, it survived for three months. So expectations were high for the MER program. Not only did the 2004 mission surpass the few months the rovers were designed for, they have both independently survived the last four years and the science they are carrying out has surpassed even the most extreme predictions. Every day we read about new discoveries coming from our intrepid explorers on Mars, they have been embraced by the international community, and they are as popular as ever.

So it is understandable that when it is announced that Spirit will need to be “turned off” for a few weeks and Opportunity will be on a “go slow”, the news sites should go crazy. I spotted several commenters and blogs requesting a petition to be sent to Congress.

The disappointment extends beyond the two rovers, what about the 300+ highly trained scientists in the Californian Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL)? Where would they go? Would they be transferred or laid off? The worry was obvious when MER principal investigator, Steve Squyres, gave a statement: “It’s very demoralizing for the team […] we would have to make some very tough decisions about which one we would hibernate and which one we would keep active. That’s a situation I do not want to face … but that’s a future worry.”

The reasons for this false alarm have been attributed to the “unexpected” long overrun of the MER mission and the ever increasing bill for the future Mars Science Laboratory Mission; a cut of $4 million was therefore inevitable.

But why the turnaround? Did NASA change its mind after being shocked by the outpouring of shock from the public? It is hard to say. So far, the only piece of extra information I have found is from the Associated Press where a letter was sent to JPL instructing mission scientists of the budget cut, but the letter was not approved by NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. When the cut was announced at JPL, NASA withdrew the letter and instructed the MER team to continue as if the letter was never sent.

I’m sure there are some questions as to why an unapproved financial letter was ever sent to JPL in the first place (I personally think NASA needs to get its paperwork in order).

So the Mars rovers can breathe a sigh of relief. However, the fact remains that NASA is under increasing pressure to save money, and an overrunning rover mission on Mars (although a massive success) still costs millions in research funding.

Original Source: AP


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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • katie April 11, 2008, 4:25 PM

    I think it is wrong that nasa got a money cut of that extent of 4 million dollars tha is very much needed if we want to do more research toward the posibility of human life we are going to need the money to build more robots like spirit and oppertunity, for further research.