NASA Orders Deep Cuts in Spirit and Opportunity Rover Budget

Space.com is reporting that NASA has ordered a 40 percent cut in the operating budgets for the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers over the next 18 months. The change involves a $4 million cut in the remaining FY 2008 budget and an $8 million reduction for FY 2009. It costs about $20 million annually to operate the two rovers.

NASA officials said there are no plans to “cancel” the mission of the two Mars Exploration Rovers, which have been on the Martian surface since 2004. An official told CNN that the cuts were being made to help balance overruns in the Mars Science Laboratory, which is set for launch next year. All three missions are managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

The program’s chief investigator, Steve Squyres of Cornell University, said the cuts could force JPL to put one of the rovers into hibernation from which it could be re-activated at a later date. Spirit, which is hobbled by a stuck wheel, is a likely candidate.

“We’re rapidly coming to the conclusion that if we have to implement this cut, it’s going to mean essentially shutting off for one of the vehicles,” Squyres told Space.com.

In the CNN story, NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs seemed to deny this, although he spoke specifically about the agency not “canceling” the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. “There is a process that has to be followed for any mission to be canceled and the cancellation of the Mars Exploration Rovers is not under consideration,” Jacobs said. “There is an ongoing budget review within the agency’s Mars exploration program. However, shutting down of one of the rovers is not an option.”

In a separate story, the Associated Press’ Alicia Chang quotes Squyers as saying that even with one rover in hibernation, the budget reductions might still force JPL to curtail science work on the active rover. “It’s very demoralizing for the team,” Squyres said.

The move comes amid an effort by NASA to refocus its exploration on the outer planets. The agency’s proposed budget includes deep cutbacks in planned expenditures for Mars over the next five years. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin says this change is in response to a National Research Council report that gave the agency an “A” for its work at Mars and a “D” for its exploration of worlds beyond the Red Planet.