NASA’s FY 2013 Request Axes Robotic Martian Exploration

By Brett Davis

NASA’s fiscal 2013 budget request of $17.7 billion includes a reduction of $226 million to robotic exploration of Mars, forcing the aerospace agency to scrap the planned U.S.-European ExoMars program.

That program initially called for a pair of rovers, then a single rover, but NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said Feb. 13 that it was still a “flagship” effort the agency couldn’t afford.

“There’s no doubt that tough decisions had to be made,” he said at a budget briefing.

NASA budget documents say that a new cross-discipline team from the Science Mission Directorate, Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate and the Office of the Chief Technologist will meet with European partners to plan new, and smaller, missions to accomplish much the same science. The team has a deadline dictated by the heavens: Mars will be closer to Earth between 2018 and 2020, when the new missions would need to launch. The agency plans to outline the first mission under this new approach in next year’s budget request.

“What we are doing with our partners is now walking away at all,” Bolden said. Instead, NASA will “take the limited funds that are available and restructure a reasonable robotic Mars exploration strategy.”

NASA’s Opportunity rover is still plugging away on the red planet and the Curiosity rover, part of the Mars Science Laboratory mission, is on the way, and two orbiters continue to send data.

“For someone to say we’re walking away from Mars with the largest rover not even there yet, I don’t think that makes sense,” Bolden said. However, NASA “found that we could not afford the path that we were on.”

DOD Budget

As defense officials have been outlining for weeks now, the fiscal 2013 budget attempts to stem defense growth over the coming decade, which affects several specific programs, including popular unmanned ones. There are plenty of unmanned systems in the budget but not as many as had once been planned.

The U.S. Navy is going to stretch out the program to fly unmanned aircraft off of aircraft carriers, known as UCLASS, said Rear Adm. Joseph Mulloy. He said the ongoing demonstration program will continue a little longer and the initial operational capability date will slip from 2018 to 2020.

The Navy’s Medium-Range Maritime Unmanned Aerial System (MRMUAS), which had barely gotten started, has been canceled and that need will be filled by the MQ-8B Fire Scout and its follow-on, the MQ-8C. The Fire Scout has been performing well enough in theater that “it was deemed a manageable risk to terminate the MRMUAS program in FY 2013,” budget documents say. The budget also begins the purchases of the Small Tactical UAS (STUAS), with five systems a year planned over the next three years.

The U.S. Air Force seeks to cut the Block 30 Global Hawk in favor of the existing U-2 manned spy plane, although the budget would still buy the first three NATO Global Hawks and three Broad Area Maritime Surveillance versions, for a total cost of nearly $1.3 billion.

Aircraft acquisition in general is down. Purchases of Air Force Reaper UAS and Army Gray Eagle UAS would drop from 91 in fiscal 2012 to 43 in FY ’12, or 24 Reapers and 19 Gray Eagles. The overall budget goes from $2.1 billion in FY ’12 to $1.9 billion.

“The FY 2013 program sustains 65 MQ-1/9 combat air patrols with a surge capability to 85; retains the Predator longer than previously planned, protects funding for the Army’s Gray Eagle, and continues the development of new capabilities. The Department has determined that 24 MQ-9 Reaper aircraft adequately support 65 combat air patrols and has reduced the procurement of the MQ-9 Reaper by 24 aircraft and reinvested the funds in ground stations,” according to budget documents.

Buys of the RQ-7 Shadow and smaller RQ-11 Raven are also down. From a buy of 900 Ravens last year, the Army would acquire 234 in fiscal 2013. Many of the aircraft are still in the pipeline, however, and the overall budget drops less precipitously, from $294.5 million in FY ’12 to $228 million in FY ’13. The Air Force research and technology budget includes $292 million for studying an optionally manned, long-range bomber, which would ramp up to a total of $6.3 billion over the next five years.

Congress Weighs In

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill will take up the fiscal 2013 budget request beginning 14 Feb., and battle lines are already being drawn.

Some lawmakers with oversight of NASA have already decried NASA’s withdrawal from ExoMars, and Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said at last week’s AUVSI’s Unmanned Systems Program Review 2012 that he wants to review the decision on the Global Hawk Block 30. 

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