The decision to cut funding for Mars exploration was made early in year 2012, with hundreds of millions in cuts that would apply to year 2013. The cuts forced NASA to cancel missions that would have sent a Mars orbiter in 2016, and a Mars rover capable of bringing samples back to Earth in 2018. The U.S. has also backed out of a joint effort with the European Space Agency for one of the cancelled missions.
According to the LA Times, the president's budget proposal cut $300 million from the agency's planetary sciences division. This would be a 20% cut from the $1.5 billion that NASA's Planetary Science Division got for year 2012. These cuts allowed funding to continue for the James Webb Space Telescope and manned space missions. If NASA wants the taxpayers to restore their funding, then Congress currently holds all of the power to do so. But Congress operates in a volatile political climate where Americans have other pressing needs and wishes.
Why NASA is not so eager to pressure the extremely wealthy and corporations that are getting huge tax breaks is the real mystery. The "one percent" could easily restore the $300 million shortfall and allow the agency to move on with Mars initiatives.
According to Newsday, NASA's core budget will stay the same while Mars exploration and other planetary science programs have been "disproportionately" and "specifically" been chosen for funding cuts. The time is ripe for NASA to pressure the government for more money, given the recent success of the Curiosity landing, the massive public delight in the flashy landing, and the fine work that Jet Propulsion Lab has done.
But the claim that the cuts are inexplicable is disingenuous and cynical. While saying that the cuts are a mystery, Newsday speculates that,
"It is probably nothing more than this: Big, powerful industrial stakeholders clamored for NASA's dollars and won out over a nerdy group of planetary scientists. NASA cut the Mars program because officials felt they could, expecting that Mars would disappear quietly into the night."
A more reasonable explanation is that NASA is exploiting the Rover's success to put public pressure on Washington. One such appeal is based on a "space race" mentality where the public is supposed to be afraid of Russia or China getting ahead of America. Another appeal is that the highly successful Mars programs are supposed to attract young students to become scientists.
Too many Americans realize that the government has far more pressing programs at home and that the returns from expensive trips to Mars do not even begin to compare with rebuilding bridges, making educations affordable, or stimulating the economy.
After all, if the students cannot afford to go to school, or if the schools are crumbling and over crowded, then where are the students going to get a technical or science degree that will get them hired at NASA? NASA claims to have education programs in its budget, but how many of those programs actually build scientists who can qualify to work there?
NASA, its backers, and fans of space exploration need to acknowledge the president's desire to protect its core budget. NASA knows that it faces a House of Representatives that is dominated by anti-government politicians. Finally, when it comes to exciting, but expensive planetary exploration, it is time to get in line behind the injured military veterans who cannot get their benefits, and getting the long term unemployed back to work.
NASA needs to realize that the agency may raise more anger than support when demanding that struggling individual taxpayers restore the $300 million when the most sensible alternative is for the corporations and extremely wealthy individuals to invest some of the money that they reaped with huge tax breaks. Those are the Americans who need to be pressured to restore the $300 million for NASA Mars ambitions.