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The dark future of American space exploration


Still, the Obama White House has been particularly uncompromising about cutting the budget for solar system exploration. In 2013, the Office of Management and Budget proposed cutting planetary science, specifically, by 21 percent, to $1.19 billion. The following year it proposed a budget of $1.22 billion, and in fiscal year 2015, it wanted $1.28 billion — each far below the $1.5 billion dog toy standard. The proposed cuts in 2015 went beyond belt-tightening, removing funding for NASA to operate the Mars rover Opportunity and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is currently circling the moon. (The president's proposed 2016 budget again attempts to kill Opportunity and the orbiter.) In each case, Congress found ways to reinsert much of the lost funding. Without the institutional support of the White House, however, NASA cannot count on the money materializing each year. The space agency cannot make five-year contracts and simply hope that Congress appropriates the money.

In times of budgetary uncertainty, NASA is forced to proceed with only the most reliable mission proposals. This means a lot of thrilling plans to explore other worlds fall by the wayside. The most notable of these, perhaps, was the Titan Mare Explorer. TiME, as it was called, was a low-cost mission proposal in 2009 to send a spacecraft to Titan, one of Saturn's moons. The spacecraft was also a boat, and would have splashed down onto one of Titan's lakes. There, it would have sailed around, analyzing the chemistry of the sea and the makeup of the air above it. It would have taken photographs of the lake and its waves. It would have even had a microphone to hear Titan's waves lapping against its side. The very idea of such a mission outpaces the fever dreams of science fiction. Sadly, lacking funding, the mission never left PowerPoint, and the launch window is now closed.

Stashed in: The Future, America!, NASA, Space!, Mars Humans

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I like the phrase "dog toy standard".

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