Monday, March 21, 2011

Lean U.S. missions to Mars, Jupiter moon recommended

For the decade 2013-2022, five separate panels of scientists and experts agreed on a suite of missions that would get the greatest scientific return from money spent, recognizing that even these projects could be budget busters.

"We have a long history in the planetary (exploration) program ... of generating cost numbers that are too optimistic," said astronomer Steven Squyers of Cornell University, who led the group that crafted the report and its recommendations.

"The people who truly believe in some project tend to be by nature optimistic and ... that comes back to bite us sometimes," Squyers said in a telephone interview.

This latest decadal survey of planetary science missions included input from an independent contractor to make sure the budgets were in line with what NASA has projected -- to be, as Squyers put it, "brutally realistic."

NASA's proposed budget for fiscal 2011 is $18.7 billion, but Congress is still wrangling over it.

Human space flight, which accounted for about $3.2 billion of the space agency budget in 2010, was not considered in this review.

President Barack Obama followed earlier administrations in recognizing the end of the space shuttle era -- the final mission is due to occur later this year.

He also canceled his predecessor's Constellation moon program, angering some lawmakers and former astronauts who argued that it would make the United States a second or third-rate power in space.

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