The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), along with an Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM), form the first mission in the ESA-NASA ExoMars Programme. The Orbiter and EDM are scheduled to arrive at Mars in 2016. This image shows the Orbiter and the EDM in cruise configuration. Image: ESA
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Lawmakers grilled NASA chief Charles Bolden today (March 21), saying the deep cuts to NASA's planetary science program in the agency's 2013 budget request will "cannibalize" future Mars exploration and threaten America's leadership in space.
Bolden testified before members of the U.S. House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee that approves NASA's annual budget in a hearing this morning in Washington, D.C. Throughout the nearly three-hour-long hearing, Bolden fielded tough questions from Republican and Democrat lawmakers alike.
President Obama's proposed fiscal year 2013 budget for NASA slashes funds for the planetary science program by $309 million — a more than 20 percent reduction of the money appropriated in the previous year. The proposed budget for planetary science includes a $130 million cutback in the agency's Mars exploration program.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said the cuts to planetary science were disproportionate and devastating, and he called the current proposal a "disaster for leadership in space." [NASA's 10 Greatest Science Missions]
"It'll cannibalize the successful Mars program," Schiff said. "I don't think you can come here and tout MSL [Mars Science Laboratory]. This community is about the future. To rely on MSL is to rely on our past. To say this is proof of our ongoing commitment to Mars just falls desperately short to me. I think that is a tragic place to be."
Schiff's district includes NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which manages the Mars Science Laboratory mission. The MSL team members are currently gearing up to land a Mini Cooper-size rover, called Curiosity, on the surface of the Red Planet in early August.
Still, Schiff expressed concern that the 2013 budget proposal takes away from NASA's rich history of robotic missions to Mars, and also ignores science priorities outlined in the National Research Council's Planetary Science Decadal Survey, which represents a consensus of the broad scientific community's goals for planetary science over the next 10 years.
The decadal survey prioritized planetary science objectives and identified particular missions that were deemed deserving of NASA's investment. At the forefront is a series of missions to Mars in partnership with the European Space Agency to collect rock samples and return them to Earth. Second on the decadal survey's wish list was a mission to Jupiter's icy moon Europa.
The increasingly cash-strapped fiscal environment forced NASA to bow out of the European Space Agency-led ExoMars mission, which aims to launch an orbiter and rover to Mars in 2016 and 2018, respectively.
Schiff viewed NASA's withdrawal from the sample return mission as an indication that the agency has decided to walk away from the decadal survey's objectives. But Bolden assured the panel that NASA is still committed to fulfilling the goals of the decadal survey, and that a sample return mission to Mars is still a top priority.
"There are more ways to do that than participating in ExoMars," Bolden said. "We are not giving up an ambitious Mars program. We have not given up on Europa. We have got to figure out how we prioritize our science budget so we can accomplish as many goals as possible. We cannot do it all." [12 Space Missions to Watch in 2012]