Nasa to announce Mars mission cuts
Scientists said 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 neighbouring 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 US dollars 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 said the cuts to the Mars missions are part of a proposed reduction of about 300 million US dollars in Nasa's 1.5 billion US dollar planetary science budget. More than 200 million US dollars in those cuts are in the Mars programme, they said. The current Mars budget is 581.7 million US dollars.
"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."
Mr 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.
Two years ago, President Barack Obama said his ultimate goal was to send astronauts to Mars.
Nasa spokesman David Weaver said that, just like the rest of the federal government, the space agency has to make "tough choices ... and live within our means". To do so, Mr Weaver said in an email: "NASA is reassessing its current Mars exploration initiatives to maximise what can be achieved."