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Obama's NASA budget: Mars takes a hit, but space science isn't dead

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However it certainly doesn't feel that way to planetary scientists who focus on Mars.

Although many could see the handwriting on the wall during the past year, seeing the cuts in a final budget proposal hit them hard.

“Everyone realizes it's austere times, that cuts have to be made and growth curtailed” in spending, says Jim Bell, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University who focuses much of his research on Mars' geology. But many people in the science community and at NASA “assumed that the pain would be spread around”– discomfort introduced in no small measure to compensate for cost overruns in both the James Web Space Telescope and the Mars Science Laboratory, currently en route to the red planet.

Initial estimates for the James Web Space Telescope, slated for launch in 2018, hovered around $1 billion in the late 1990s. Current estimates put the cost at $8 billion.

Instead of shared sacrifice, “we're seeing very targeted pain, targeted at the planetary exploration program, and very frustratingly targeted at the most successful part of the planetary exploration program,” the Mars exploration program, he says.

The cuts are all the more frustrating, he and other researchers say, because the latest decadal survey for planetary sciences, which NASA uses as a blueprint for missions, went to great lengths to outline what it saw as a realistic exploration program with modest budget growth as well as scaled-back priorities if budgets truly tightened, as they have.

“We get it,” he says. 

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