WASHINGTON — Big-ticket missions to collect martian soil samples and study the expansion of the universe are two early casualties of U.S. President Barack Obama’s proposal to cut NASA’s 2013 budget by 0.3 percent next year, according to White House budget documents released Feb. 13.

The request represents only the fourth time since 1999 that a president has proposed reducing NASA’s budget. In each of the previous three instances, Congress wound up appropriating slight increases for the space agency.

Under the $17.7 billion NASA budget request the White House is sending to Congress, spending on robotic Mars exploration would drop from $587 million this year to $361 million next year, a 38.5 percent reduction. NASA last year launched its most ambitious Mars mission to date, the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory rover, and plans to launch a martian orbiter next year.

NASA’s broader Science Mission Directorate budget, which includes planetary exploration, astronomy and Earth environment monitoring, would also be cut next year, but not by nearly as much. Instead of the $5.07 billion it received this year, the directorate would get $4.911 billion next year.

A significant fraction of that amount would go toward the $8.5 billion James Webb Space Telescope. Its proposed successor, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, would be deferred, according to the White House summary of the president’s NASA budget.

Among the other highlights in the White House summary:

  • Spending on Earth observation satellites would be maintained at nearly $1.8 billion next year.
  • The Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Exploration Vehicle would be funded as a combined level of “almost $3 billion.”
  • The Space Technology program would get $699 million, up from the $569 million Congress approved for 2012.
  • NASA’s Education and Aeronautics budget, among the agency’s smaller accounts in the first place, would both be cut by several tens of millions of dollars.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program would get $830 million in 2013, up sharply from the $406 million Congress approved for 2012.

Meanwhile, future-year budget projections released by the White House indicate that the president’s budget planners apparently view cutting NASA’s budget as a one-time necessity. The 10-year run-out shows steady annual increases for NASA through 2022, with the agency’s budget returning to the enacted 2011 level of $18.4 billion by 2015.



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Brian Berger is editor in chief of SpaceNews.com and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined SpaceNews.com in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. His reporting on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was...