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Mars budget cuts 'irrational' says former NASA science chief

NASA faces deep budget cuts, forcing it to eliminate some missions to explore Mars. The cuts will allow the agency to continue its plans to build a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.  

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This artist's rendering shows a 'sky crane' lowering NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover onto the surface of Mars. The rover launched from Cape Canaveral in November 2011 and is scheduled to land on Mars in August. The mission may be one of the last to the Red Planet in the near future, as deep budget cuts are forcing NASA to abandon plans to visit neighboring planets.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/AP/File

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Scientists say NASA is about to propose major cuts in its exploration of other planets, especially Mars. NASA's former science chief is calling the plan irrational.

With limited money for science and an over-budget new space telescope, the space agency essentially had to make a choice in where it wanted to explore: the neighboring planet or the far-off cosmos.

Mars lost.

Two scientists who were briefed on the 2013 NASA budget that will be released next week said the space agency is eliminating two proposed joint missions with Europeans to explore Mars in 2016 and 2018. NASA had agreed to pay $1.4 billion for those missions. Some Mars missions will continue, but the fate of future flights is unclear, including the much-sought flight to return rocks from the red planet.

The two scientists, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the budget, said the cuts to the Mars missions are part of a proposed reduction of about $300 million in NASA's$1.5 billion planetary science budget. More than $200 million in those cuts are in the Mars program, they said. The current Mars budget is $581.7 million.

"To me, it's totally irrational and unjustified," said Edward Weiler, who until September was NASA's associate administrator for science. "We are the only country on this planet that has the demonstrated ability to land on another planet, namely Mars. It is a national prestige issue."

Weiler said he quit last year because he was tired of fighting to save Mars from the budget knife. He said he fought successfully to keep major cuts from Mars in the current budget but has no firsthand knowledge of the 2013 budget proposal.

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