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NASA's Science Mission Directorate has fallen on hard times. The expense of deep-space exploration has run smack into the wall of debt and fiscal uncertainty that is roiling the economy.The situation is so bad that NASA probably won't be able to pony up for a 2016 Mars launch promised to the European Space Agency, leading ESA to ask the Russians if they could supply a Proton. Expect a "you betcha" from Vladimir Popovkin, the new head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos.And it's far from a sure bet that the long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope will ever make it to the L2 Earth-Sun lagrangian point to peer back at the earliest light in the Universe. The state-of-the-art infrared instrument is so far over budget and behind schedule that it won't be able to weather any more serious technical issues or management missteps, even with powerful congressional backers like Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.).The situation is so dire that the directorate's planetary science division may have to shut down ongoing missions to pay the bills for new ones. The division's $1.54-billion annual budget this year faces a 23% reduction over the next five years.A "senior review" next March of missions like the Cassini Saturn probe, Opportunity Mars rover and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is going to face some very serious choices."It may be that we will have to not fund some missions, or fund them at a level that reduces some of this science they may proposed," says Jim Green, the planetary science division chief. "We don't know what will happen in that, but everyone of course if vying for the same budget."Here is an example of what is at stake:NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science InstituteThis new Cassini image shows Saturn's famous rings and four of the planet's moons. The largest -- Titan -- is behind Dione, with tiny Pandora orbiting just beyond the rings at right, and even tinier Pan barely visible in the A ring's Encke Gap at the left.It's a spectacular image, of the kind we have become accustomed to seeing since the nuclear-powered probe reached Saturn in 2004.Cassini is now in its second mission extension, which is scheduled to run until September 2017 to cover the planet's summer solstice that begins in May of that year. Beautiful as they are, images like these pale in comparison to the science return from missions like Cassini that both expand mankind's knowledge of the heavens around us and engage new generations of space scientists to gain the education and skill necessary to figure it out.Most NASA managers realize this, and won't undertake their decision-making lightly. Let's hope the politicians who set the funding limits -- on Capitol Hill and in the White House budget office -- have the same understanding as they do their difficult jobs.
Copyright © 2013, Aviation Week, a division of McGraw Hill Financial.