NASA U-Turn Over Mars Rover Funding

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 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

41 Replies to “NASA U-Turn Over Mars Rover Funding”

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


  3. 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 they will hope. But by then it will be too late.

  4. 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?”

  5. 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.

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

  7. 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.

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

  9. 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 🙂

  10. 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!

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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!

  14. 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 working, and it requires more of your money to do so. Well the whole point is NASA just keeps eating the governments money for these rovers that were only supposed to last a few months. Eventually, wether anyone likes it or not, the government is going to shut down the rover programs. The results just arent good enough to keep them going. On the plus side of all this though, saving money all the sooner will lead up to funding for sending humans to Mars!!! So I dont think a budget cut here and there is such a bad thing. If it was your money, wouldnt you be more interested in funding the future of space travel as opposed to funding the past of space travel? I know I would.

    Oh, and before everyone starts hating me for this, just remember: its just a thought!

  15. Dear Congress,

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


    The People.

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

  17. How much simpler it would be to cut the 4 million from the war effort. That would be less than a drop in the bucket.

  18. So, you guys spend a trillion to have your useless wars around the globe, but can’t find a 4 million dollars for a mars program?

    It’s so funny.

    You guys have that Trump guy there, he probably could run NASA better by himself with his own funding…


    Is your caps lock key stuck, or are you just yelling through type?

    ” Vagueofgodalming Says:
    March 26th, 2008 at 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.”

    Very true. You can almost hear it now – “Ok, we’ll fund the Rover program due to popular support. But we’ll have to cut _ (insert five fundamentally important but not publically well-known programs here) _ . Don’t blame us, this is what YOU wanted.”

    I guess it has to be understood that NASA has, and will always have, a limited budget whether we like it or not. And they do do a fairly good job of working with the cards they are dealt for the most part. But just for once it would be good to have a few years where we’re not hearing about budget cuts. Would it be too much to ask for some budget increases occasionally?! Of course its all very well sitting over here in Australia telling you how to spend your tax dollars – maybe Amercia needs to form an international consortium of ‘NASA partners’ to help fund some of the actual ongoing mission costs, as opposed to simply providing instrumentation and componentry as is the case now.

    In the end though, we have to make this work somehow. Surely space exploration and fundamental science ranks among the most worthwhile of human endeavours. Otherwise what are people doing with themselves during their lives? Just running around aimlessly bumping into each other, basically.


  21. Archer, i applaude you for that post.

    my idea-
    terraform Mars. let me and 20 other people set up a base colony, send a couple of rockets that have all our building/ building supplies, a few rovers. we could do a little digging to help protect against random things the universe throws at us. it will be cheaper to let us do all the driving of those rovers, too. give us a green house. send more people as deemed fitting. in about 200 years, we should be able to plant some type of grasses in the landscape.
    how about it NASA?

  22. Maybe its no accident that they refer to this particular field as Political “Science”. How important is PR now?

    To Archer – Power To The People!!

    When stated by Emission Nebula – “Well the whole point is NASA just keeps eating the governments money …”, I spewed coffee. April 15th is just too close.

    I’m proud to be here on the lowest rung. Try climbing a ladder without a first “step”.

  23. I liked “the Mafia Hit” email. But that wouldn’t happen until Spriit makes it to the top of “The Face on Mars” at Cydonia. NASA will make the reception a little fuzzy, so you can just barely make out a glimpse of SOMETHING THERE and then POW!!! — end of signal.

  24. Am I the only individual on the planet that wonders why it is only the government that funds such things. What happened to all our savings in the savings industry?

  25. Please no disassemble! Number 5 is ALIVE!!!

    Sorry folk I could not resist!

    ,ø¤º°`°º¤ø,¸ Shane¸,ø¤º°`°º¤ø,¸

  26. Glad they changed their minds ,so whats on the hit list now,we need all these missions to continue,hopefully from now on the will more public support for space and its exploration.

  27. What galls me is that it was only four million. From a former Fed, I can say this without blinking an eye. They waste more than that in a day. I’m glad someone woke up and stopped the madness.

  28. I glad this mission hasn’t ended because of a bureaucratic SNAFU, but the mission’s going to end sometime, maybe sometime soon.

    You have to wonder how it feels for all those people at JPL on the MER team. Now that the rovers are more than 10x past their expected life, they could fail at any moment. One little wire snaps off one antenna, and Spirit is lost. It must be very hard to stay enthusiastic when your job could end, permanently, at any moment (well, minus the 42 minutes it takes right now to send a message to Mars and -not- get a reply.)

    Maybe this accidental budget cut will make the JPL staffers stop and take a look around back here on Earth…

  29. How glad I am that the cuts proposed won’t materialise in the end!

    The Mars Rovers are doing a fantastic job on Mars. Maybe the technology & electronics , etc, will be used in future Mars projects! After all they must have done something extremely well to cause the Rovers to last so long under such terrible conditions on Mars.

  30. Emission Nebula: This, whatever it is, in Iraq is costing the U.S. 12,000,000.00 an hour, every hour. It’s absolutely disgusting the government won’t find a way to let NASA have the necessary funding it needs for it’s operation.

  31. The “Right Thing To Do” is not to blame NASA but to get to the root of the problem which is ….GREED and Politics and really stupid Group Dynamics .
    We are spending 12 billion dollars a month in Iraq !
    The Presidents that are elected , just like Kings , do not have to be really Intelligent just crafty , and are given the power to to run amok destroying what has been passed on to them, including the good and evil.
    Look at the history of the Space Program and in particular what happened under President Nixon and the limbo of LEO he created for NASA thirty years ..
    Get to the Bedrock of the problem …
    NASA is subject to the whims of politicians and is helpless against budget cuts so their money must come as a generous mandatory donation from all of the wealthy big lobbies especially the Health ,Oil and Automotive , Pharmaceutical and Industrial Military Complex Industries etc as a direct tax on their EXCESS profitsand waste.
    It could be a function of the benefits received by that Industry in the form of Spinoffs from the Space Program statistically calculated from past data and future predicted amounts .
    The remainder would come from personal Income Taxes and Xprize financing and private non mandatory donations..
    Likewise Health Care for everyone including fthe Elderly programs like Social Security and Medicare should be paid partly by excess Health and Pharmaceutical Industry
    profits .
    So to solve the NASA funding problem and “The Right Thing To Do” would be to create an equation based on non mandatory donations and Excess profits tax “donations” from huge lobbies (the oil and pharmaceutical especially ) and personal incomes taxes and Xprize funding which would solve the problem.
    Kind of look at it also as “The Patriotic Thing To Do” and “We must all pull together” .. including the wealthy , just like in World War II for our survival as a first rate power.
    We can’t be sure the ESA or China or Russia or Japan or India will do it so we must set an example and take the lead..
    This may sound similar to the negative philosophy that the current administration has adopted with respect to “Policing the World” because a certain group within has decided to do it , with or without a mandate of the people..
    However , this Space Funding Solution is different because it is a “Positive and Peaceful Thing to do ” and should not include the Militarization of Space .
    In the long run , it could help our species survive which could be a good thing…

  32. I guess I should say something here now that Im the “right wing” bad guy.

    Wars in Iraq, rich billionares with the last name Trump. Lets face it, America is a greedy bastard. I dont like any more than anyone else. And being a poor American that I am, and being highly intrigued about space, and space exploration more than anyone I know, I just have a tiny opinion.

    War in Iraq= bad and shouldve ended long ago. But before we cut funding our troops that help them, we should bring them home first eh?

    And while everyones talkiing about how 4 million dollars is nothing to NASA, I suppose if your an accountant that works for NASA, I would listen to you. In truth none of us know what NASA has up its sleeve for the future, and maybe cutting funding would help into that. OF COURSE I COULD BE 100% WRONG. Maybe someone wanted to cut that funding so they could buy a huge house, and an expensive car. How am I to know? How are any of you to know? I would like to know either way what the deal is.

    I didnt intend to start a debate when I originally posted what I said before. It was just a thought.

    Anyway, this topic is old now. The Rovers live on, and this should make everyone happy right? I know it does me.

  33. 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.

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