Mars Program Gets an “A”; NASA Slashes Funding

After years of brilliant success studying the Red Planet, scientists and engineers working on NASA’s Mars exploration are getting their just desserts: deep cutbacks in their programs for the next four years.

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin announced last week that he was refocusing the agency’s exploration budget on the outer planets. RedOrbit.com reports that NASA is requesting around $343 million annually for Mars exploration for 2009-12, just over half the $620 million it had estimated just a year ago.

Griffin said the change was spurred by a recent National Research Council report which gave the agency an “A” for its Mars work and a “D” for its exploration of the outer worlds.

“After Mars Science Lab – the current planetary sciences flagship – we are now planning in earnest for an outer planets flagship to Europa, Titan or Ganymede,” Griffin told attendees at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston last week.

Pamela L. Gay has an account of Griffin’s talk and the resulting Q&A on her Star Stryder website. Several of the questioners asked why Griffin was penalizing a program with such a high grade. And how he expected people who have spent their entire careers studying Mars to suddenly shift over to another area.

Gay says the administrator told the scientists they should not specialize in one area (specialization is for bugs). He also compared it to his golf game (Griffin is apparently a lousy putter, so he doesn’t spent much time at the driving range).

None of this seems to have gone over very well. A European woman in the audience began to make a few “comments” about how the cuts would deeply affect joint NASA-ESA planning for a Mars soil sample return mission. Griffin, however, was having none of that. “I don’t want comments, I want questions,” he demanded. She persisted in making her points, only to be rebuked again.

“Really – I don’t want comments,” repeated Griffin, who a week earlier demanded that the space community ostracize his critics. “I’m the invited speaker. I’m the one invited to talk. Other people can make comments when they are invited to speak. I want questions – But I’ll try and address the question within your comments.”

The NASA administrator responded by saying that NASA couldn’t always focus on Mars, and he reiterated the the space agency’s commitment to funding a sample return mission.

Audience members were left asking Griffin and themselves a lot of questions. Why were they being criticized for specializing when science itself has become increasingly specialized? Why was the head of NASA comparing them to mindless insects? And what exactly is Griffin’s golf handicap? All fascinating questions.

Gay’s account of the meeting is well worth reading. For more, there is an interesting discussion going on about all this over at Jeff Foust’s Space Politics blog.