THE dream of crossing the final frontier in search of life on Mars has been dashed after Nasa announced that financial cutbacks have forced it to scale back on missions to neighbouring planets.
Yesterday the space agency’s former chief scientist criticised Nasa’s “irrational” plan to save money by cutting back on its exploration of the red planet.
Edward Weiler, who was the space agency’s associate administrator for science until September, said the decision was “unjustified” and the reason he left the agency last year. Scientists believe Nasa is about to propose major cuts in its exploration of other planets, especially Mars.
With limited money for science and an over-budget new space telescope, the space agency had to make a choice about where it wanted to explore – the neighbouring planet or the far-off cosmos.
Two scientists who were briefed on the 2013 Nasa budget that will be released next week said the space agency is eliminating two proposed joint missions with Europeans to explore Mars in 2016 and 2018.
Nasa had agreed to pay $1.4 billion for those missions. Some Mars missions will continue, but the fate of future flights is unclear, including the much-sought flight to return rocks from the red planet.
More than $200m in those cuts are in the Mars programme, they said. The current Mars budget is $581.7m.
“To me, it’s totally irrational and unjustified,” said Mr Weiler. “We are the only country on this planet that has the demonstrated ability to land on another planet, namely Mars. It is a national prestige issue.”
Mr Weiler said he quit last year because he was tired of fighting to save Mars from budget cuts. He said he fought successfully to keep major cuts from Mars in the current budget but has no first-hand knowledge of the 2013 budget proposal.
Mars “has got public appeal, it’s got scientific blessings from the National Academy”, he said. “Why would you go after it? And it fulfils the president’s space policy to encourage more foreign collaboration.”
Nasa spokesman David Weaver said the space agency had to make “tough choices ... and live within our means”.
He added: “Nasa is reassessing its current Mars exploration initiatives to maximise what can be achieved.”
One of the big problems for Nasa’s science budget is the replacement for the wildly successful Hubble Space Telescope. Scientists at Edinburgh University are among those working on Euclid, a satellite which is the successor to the Hubble telescope, which will go into solar orbit between Earth and Mars in 2019.
The James Webb Space Telescope, which would be about 100 times more powerful and would gaze farther into the universe than ever before, is now supposed to cost around $8bn. The original estimate was $3.5bn. The other big part of Nasa science spending, Earth sciences, – is not being cut