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NASA U-Turn Over Mars Rover Funding

25 Mar , 2008 by

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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MrBill
Guest
MrBill
March 25, 2008 10:46 PM

Did the internet just accomplish something?

Daniel
Guest
March 26, 2008 3:39 AM

Good to hear this… Think the internet did acheive something…. Guess I can stop writing the letter to my congressman..

INFINITY
Guest
INFINITY
March 25, 2008 10:50 PM

IT IS MANKIND’S DESTINY TO EXPLORE OUTER SPACE. MONEY SPENT IN GETTING US OUT OF THIS PLANET WILL SAVE FUTURE GENERATIONS. IN TIME THE HUMAN RACE WILL MANAGE TO DEPLETE THE RESOURCES ON EARTH. UNLESS WE WANT TO END UP EATING EACH OTHER IT IS BEST WE EXPLORE OTHER RESOURCES IN OUTER SPACE/PLANETS.

UNdistinguished
Guest
UNdistinguished
March 26, 2008 5:56 AM
We now need to watch for an “unexpected” event to happen to one or both of the rovers. NASA will release a bulletin stating, “While negotiating across the lip of the crater, the rover tipped over and rolled down the hillside. We are unable to contact it or make any recovery of this most valuable little explorer. It is a sad day for all of here at NASA.” And thus, NASA will save a pittance and be able to get off the hook with the whole community. Sorta like getting the Mafia to do a hit. Of course what really happens is someone leans across the consoland turns off the little rover. We’ll never know – or so… Read more »
Molecular
Member
Molecular
March 25, 2008 11:22 PM

I’m sure extraterrestrial influence was behind this sudden u-turn. smile

Eduardo P.D.
Guest
Eduardo P.D.
March 25, 2008 11:38 PM

I believe it did….

I personally enjoy the rover pic in the article!

Todd
Guest
Todd
March 26, 2008 12:02 AM

It makes one wonder what future projects may have their budgets slashed. I’m so glad NASA did the right thing. You don’t spend millions of dollars successfully landing hardware on Mars, then decide to waste that effort by halting the most productive Mars mission in the history of…history.

Fox Mulder would say, “What if we turned the rovers off one day before we discovered little green men?”

vagueofgodalming
Member
March 26, 2008 8:22 AM

This strikes me as a fairly standard manoeuvre in budget politics. When cuts threaten, claim that they will affect your most high profile and popular item. Use the resulting stink to ensure any cuts fall elsewhere.

john
Guest
john
March 26, 2008 3:33 AM

I still think some bodies should fund this work outside the NASA budget. I don’t enough to help chip in unfortunately.

brent
Guest
brent
March 26, 2008 11:53 AM

I agree with what a few before have said, this was more than likely a tactic to create awareness of how unpopular the move would be and mobilize measurable public support needed to justify not cutting funding.

Aqualung
Guest
Aqualung
March 26, 2008 5:43 AM

So they did find oil on Mars!

DannyBoy
Guest
DannyBoy
March 26, 2008 5:56 AM

This is the first time that I actually enjoy seeing administrative “back-peddaling” in a governmental agency.

liberum
Guest
liberum
March 26, 2008 7:15 AM

It does seem that internet actually acomplished something.
Or their paperwork is seriously lacking.
Whatever the case, I sure like the rover pic up there smile
Phew!

BrianT
Member
BrianT
March 26, 2008 7:22 AM

NASA doesn’t do paperwork well… I was once asked to review a grant proposal which I had helped write and was a Co-Investigator on!

David R.
Member
David R.
March 26, 2008 7:32 AM

It’s a shame that the consistent theme in NASA life is “under pressure to save money.” NASA should be immune from these pressures, as it only serves as a distraction from its production of quality science, research and advancements in technology. Virtually every administration and every session of congress has targeted NASA when saving a buck comes into play. And every time they put agencies like NASA in the vice grip, they contribute to the decline of culture. Any society that does not make science, research, and the arts a priority does so at the expense of its future. How unfortunate. At least the rovers are still producing quality science.

Terragen
Member
Terragen
March 26, 2008 7:47 AM

I think NASA came over and read all our jaded comments about the measly 4 million and had a change of heart! The Grinch heard the little Who! YAY!

Finally someone made the right decision.

ioresult
Member
March 26, 2008 7:57 AM

I think the letter was meant as a draft and some secretary mistakenly sent it unapproved. Now that the public has had time to react, they’ll never have the guts to do it for real!

Emission Nebula
Guest
Emission Nebula
March 26, 2008 9:00 AM
I read this web site about everyday. And I dont say anything, and Im sure more people would be happy about that if they knew my opinions. But I am glad to see that the rovers will continue. However, I think everyone os out of line when they want to bash the President and our government for wanting to cut the budget. Lets think about it a completely different way. Lets say your the government, and NASA says “hey, we got the rovers that we will land on Mars, and itll only last about 3 months, and thats all youll have to budget for”. So you, the government says “ok, go ahaead”. But then NASA`s rovers keep on… Read more »
Archer
Guest
Archer
March 26, 2008 9:25 AM

Dear Congress,

Fund NASA, or fund your retirement after we vote you and your 19% approval rating out of office.

Sincerely,

The People.

Kirtis
Member
Kirtis
March 26, 2008 9:25 AM

Have one of the rovers outline a big Pepsi logo on the surface of Mars and you’d have funding for the next decade!

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