Mars Rovers Survive NASA's Budget Crunch

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 26, 2008

For four years, the Mars robot rovers Spirit and Opportunity have braved deep cold and burning heat, week-long dust storms and steep crater walls -- continuing to send back invaluable data well past the three months they were expected to survive.

Last week, the rover mission's principal investigator experienced what appeared to be the gravest threat of all: Budget cuts that would have sent one of the solar-powered rovers into hibernation, and the other into part-time operation.

As part of broad cost-cutting in many NASA programs, mission investigator Steven Squyres of Cornell University was told that NASA headquarters had sent a letter to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory making it clear that $4 million would be cut from his program. Squyres and his team concluded that they would have to strictly curtail operations.

That was before NASA Administrator Michael Griffin learned of the plan. NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown said yesterday that Griffin was surprised to learn that the rover mission had been targeted for drastic cutback, and that he opposed the idea.

"Closing down either of the rovers is not on the table," Brown quoted Griffin as saying Monday night. Then yesterday NASA released a statement that said: "This letter was not coordinated with the administrator's office and is in the process of being rescinded. The administrator has unequivocally stated that no rover will be turned off."

Squyres yesterday was philosophical about the rovers' near-death experience.

"There are a lot of ups and downs in this business, and if you were to let yourself get whipsawed by all of them, life would get pretty stressful," he said in an e-mail.

"Where we are now is where we were a week ago: The budget is tight, people at NASA Headquarters have a difficult job to do, and we've got two aging but productive rovers on the surface of Mars doing good science."

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