False economies

A few months back, I blogged about what appeared to be some incipient panic about NASA’s planetary science budget. As the James Webb Space Telescope was found to be running up jaw-dropping cost overruns, there were rumors that the budget axe was likeliest to fall on planetary exploration.

Computer-generated image of sunrise over Gale Crater on Mars.

Lost horizons? Image of sunrise at Gale Crater on Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL.

At the time, it was difficult to tell how much of this worry was realistic and how much was alarmism. Unfortunately, with the release of the President’s proposed budget for 2013, it looks as if “realistic” might have been closer to it. Over at Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait breaks down the numbers, and the preliminary analysis looks extraordinarily bad for planetary science: a nearly 40% reduction in funding for Mars programs alone.

Generally speaking, few people in the space science community really wanted to see the JWST scrubbed, and indeed the new budget incorporates more money for the beleaguered project. But there seems to be no question about where the extra money hasĀ  come from.

This is particularly painful, given how successful NASA’s unmanned planetary exploration program has been in general, and how spectacularly successful its Mars programs have been of late. The two Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, exceeded the most optimistic expectations and have returned amazing scientific value for a relatively modest investment.

As Plait points out, this is still just a preliminary proposal. It hasn’t been passed, and the conventional wisdom seems to be that it doesn’t really have a chance of getting passed in its present form.

Still, it’s got a lot of people worried, and it seems—at least from this distance—to be an exercise in false economy. Pound for pound, NASA’s unmanned probes have achieved some of the best scientific ROI of the entire space program.

Image credit: NASA

And the funding cuts, while they can potentially devastate planetary science in the coming years, aren’t even a rounding error in the budget as whole.This is a heck of way to celebrate the Year of the Solar System!

There’s got to be a better way to balance NASA’s checkbook.

More coverage of the proposed NASA budget at Universe Today and at the Planetary Society.

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