Statement On Mars 2020

Statement on Mars 2020 from the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences, prepared in collaboration with The Planetary Society, The American Geophysical Union’s Planetary Science Section and the Geological Society of America’s Planetary Geology Division

NASA recently announced a return to Mars in 2020 with a new rover derived from the MSL Curiosity design. Continued exploration of Mars is crucial to the scientific community and important for building upon our decades-long investment in technology and engineering capability. We strongly believe that the mission should carry a payload consistent with the recommendations given in the National Research Council’s decadal survey for planetary science, Vision and Voyages. It is of the utmost importance that NASA and Congress follow the recommendations laid forth in the Decadal Survey in order to maximize science return and support a balanced and affordable approach to exploration in our solar system.

We also emphasize that the serious budget cuts to NASA’s Planetary Science Division have not yet been averted. The budget environment proposed by the Obama Administration in February 2012, if fully implemented, will result in deep cuts across the entire planetary exploration program. Outcomes could include early termination of highly successful ongoing missions, delays of future missions in the Discovery and New Frontiers programs; and reductions in basic research grants that fund current and future scientists. The proposed budget also precludes a mission to Europa, long considered one of the most compelling and scientifically rich destinations in the solar system. A strategic mission to Europa is considered a close second to the Mars mission in the Decadal Survey.

We strongly urge Congress and the Administration to reverse these cuts and, at minimum, maintain the 2012 funding level of $1.5 billion per year for the next five years for NASA’s Planetary Science Division.

A flat budget of $1.5 billion would allow NASA to conduct Discovery- and New Frontiers-class missions – smaller, less expensive missions that provide outstanding scientific return – at a tempo closer to the recommendation given by the Decadal Survey: a Discovery mission every three years and the selection of two new New Frontiers missions before 2022. Proper funding for scientific research and technology development, both crucial aspects of the planetary program, would also be possible. We believe it is vitally important to provide NASA’s Planetary Sciences Division with the minimal funds necessary to provide a proper balance between its five key elements: strategic missions, Discovery missions, New Frontiers missions, research and analysis, and advanced technology development. A restored budget could achieve this.

Additionally, the top two major mission recommendations of the Decadal Survey could be pursued within this $1.5 billion per year budget cap, without adjustment for inflation, based on publicly available NASA budget data and cost estimates for the Mars 2020 rover and a reduced-cost Europa mission.

Congress deserves credit for restoring some of this funding in the FY13 appropriations bills taken up last year. While these bills are currently stalled while Congress tackles broader fiscal issues, they demonstrate a strong commitment to the program by both the House and the Senate. A vocal, coordinated, and focused response by the scientific community and the public provided crucial support for this effort. NASA planetary missions and programs are by definition innovative - all the technology, equipment, and building needs to created and crafted, requiring high-tech jobs and fostering high-tech skills in our national work force.

In summary, we support the decision by NASA to pursue a 2020 Mars rover mission as long as it fits within the specific recommendations of the Decadal Survey, which include both scientific and cost-cap guidance, and is part of a balanced exploration portfolio. We urge Congress and the Administration to maintain NASA’s leadership in planetary science by restoring the division’s budget to FY12 levels of $1.5 billion per year.