By Calder Phillips-Grafflin
Last week, NASA’s 2013 fiscal year budget was released, and it’s bad news for just about everyone. Yet again, a new budget means a new round of cuts, bringing the annual budget down $59 million (.3 percent) to $17.7 billion. To provide some context, our annual military spending totals almost $700 billion, which means that NASA’s cuts are equivalent to about an hour’s worth of military spending.
The big winner of NASA’s new budget is the Space Launch System (SLS), a large rocket system reminiscent of the 1960s-era Saturn V. NASA clearly needs a replacement for the Shuttle, but it’s not clear that prioritizing the SLS, which won’t be ready until the end of the decade, over all other projects is really a good idea. Just months ago, it was widely believed that the SLS project was politically impossible in the current budget climate.
NASA’s new budget brings some major international collaboration to a sudden and unfortunate end. Without NASA’s participation, ESA, the European Space Agency, can’t use the large rover designs it was planning to use on the ExoMARS mission. ExoMARS was supposed to return samples of Martian soil, but this won’t be possible with the smaller lander ESA will now have to use.
The 2013 NASA budget screams “election year”; it brings substantial cuts while at the same time committing to short-term investment (the SLS) in a small number of important Congressional districts that do nothing more than provide talking points for legislators running for reelection. It’s a shame that this political posturing had to come at the cost of one of the largest international space projects in decades.