WALL-E OR Major Tom? Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s proposed cuts to NASA tilt in the wrong direction, preserving too much funding for a manned space program of questionable value even while slashing the agency’s more cost-effective robotic programs.
In its budget unveiled this week, the administration proposed slicing $300 million from NASA’s planetary science budget, a cut that would force the agency to pull out of unmanned Mars missions planned for 2016 and 2018. But it devotes $1 billion toward the Orion capsule, which would carry astronauts starting in 2021 - if it’s ever completed.
When Congress takes up NASA’s budget, it should reverse those priorities. If the space program has to suffer cuts, it’s far preferable they should come out of manned programs that make nice headlines but don’t generate nearly enough scientific bang for the buck.
The administration’s decision continued a pattern that has bedeviled NASA for years. Manned missions attract the interest of politicians - most recently, Newt Gingrich’s moon base - even while robot probes and unmanned missions like the Hubble telescope accomplish the lion’s share of exploration.
Obama’s budget request coincides with the 50th anniversary Monday of John Glenn’s first space flight. The bravery of Glenn and the astronauts who followed him across the final frontier is undeniable, and certainly played a role in rallying Cold War morale. But in 2012, the NASA budget ought to be geared toward producing the best results - not proving that we can.