According to Space News, the proposed Obama administration slashing of NASA's planetary exploration will cause the indefinite cancellation of all future "flagship" missions that had been planned to various destinations in the solar system.
What are Flagship missions?
Flagship missions are robotic planetary missions that due to their size and complexity cost more than $1 billion to undertake. This compares to missions classified as Discovery missions, which are low cost, and New Frontiers missions, which are medium cost.
What are some examples of previous Flagship missions?
Previous missions that have been classified under the Flagship category include the Voyager outer planets flyby probes, Galileo which orbited Jupiter, Cassini which is currently orbiting Saturn, and the Mars Science Laboratory, now on its way to Mars. The James Webb Space Telescope, because it costs in excess of $8 billion is also considered a Flagship mission.
Which future Flagship missions have been axed because of the budget cuts?
NASA has pulled out of two joint missions with the Europeans to Mars, an orbiter and a drill equipped rover. The European Space Agency is now in talks with Russia as a partner for these missions.
A Mars sample return mission and a mission that would have been aimed at Jupiter's moon Europa are now on indefinite hold. The Europa mission would have examined the surface ice field of that world which is thought to cover a subsurface ocean.
NASA has also considered a mission to Uranus, similar to Galileo and Cassini, which would have involved an orbiter and a probe that would have penetrated the atmosphere of the seventh planet from the sun.
What does NASA propose to do now?
For the time being, NASA will concentrate on smaller, less expensive missions to targets throughout the solar system. NASA hopes to restart Flagship missions, perhaps sometime in the 2030s. That decade has been touted as the earliest time that a human mission to Mars might be mounted.
What has been the reaction?
While NASA and Obama administration officials tout the unsteady budget situation, the reaction from the scientific community has been universally negative. The current president of the Planetary Society, Bill Nye "the Science Guy" decried the cancellations when humanity is on the cusp of discovering habitable environments on Mars and other worlds.
Robert Zubrin of the Mars Society was even more direct. In a National Review article he ascribed ideological motives to the planned cuts in planetary exploration. Zubrin accuses the Obama administration of deliberately imposing constraints on human aspirations, inspired by "limits to growth" advocates such as Paul Ehlrich and current White House science czar John Holdren.
NASA maintains that the cutbacks are solely motivated by budget considerations in an environment where NASA funding will remain flat for the foreseeable future.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.
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