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Ed Weiler Says He Quit NASA Over Cuts to Mars Program

9 February 2012 1:50 pm
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NASA

Next week, President Barack Obama will propose a $300 million cut in NASA's planetary science programs as part of his 2013 request for the agency, ScienceInsider has learned. If adopted by Congress, the 20% cut in planetary science would in all likelihood shelve NASA's ability to participate in two Mars missions to be carried out in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA). And the former head of NASA's science mission says that the targeting of the ExoMars program by White House budget officials was the final straw leading to his resignation last fall.

"The Mars program is one of the crown jewels of NASA," says Ed Weiler. "In what irrational, Homer Simpson world would we single it out for disproportionate cuts?"

Weiler's resignation in September caught the space science community by surprise. But he says it was the culmination of a soul-sapping and ultimately unsuccessful battle with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) on how to accommodate the rising cost of the James Webb Space Telescope within an overall agency budget being squeezed by efforts to reduce federal spending and shrink the deficit. "It all left a very bad taste," Weiler told ScienceInsider this morning from his house in Vero Beach, Florida.

The story begins with a 2008 agreement between NASA and ESA to share the costs of sending the Trace Gas Orbiter to Mars in a 2016 mission, followed by a European rover and a U.S. rover in 2018. Last week, ESA officials said that they were in talks with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, to fly those missions without any help from NASA on the assumption that NASA was likely to pull out of the partnership.

Weiler says dropping out of ExoMars would be especially painful after NASA and ESA officials revised their original plans to suit the Obama Administration's 2012 budget for NASA, drawn up early last year. Last spring, Weiler said he realized that OMB would not allow more than $1.2 billion for NASA's participation in ExoMars, far less than what NASA and ESA had agreed upon earlier. So he worked with a then-ESA director, David Southwood, to descope the 2016 and 2018 missions. Instead of sending two independent rovers in 2018, the two partners agreed that they would send only one. "Every time [OMB] gave us a new cut budget, we found ways to live with it," Weiler says.

Last summer, as NASA went back and forth with OMB officials in a preliminary draft of a 2013 budget, Weiler says it became evident that the budget for the Science Mission Directorate would be smaller than its current level of $5 billion. (Planetary science programs now receive $1.5 billion. The president's 2013 request would reduce that to $1.2 billion, and to $1 billion by 2017.) The agency also had to accommodate the increased cost of the James Webb Space Telescope. Rather than targeting any one program, Weiler says he proposed a 3% across-the-board cut that would meet the new bottom line.

But OMB officials insisted that ExoMars be singled out for a significant reduction. After five consecutive successful NASA missions to Mars, Weiler says, this decision struck him as bizarre. Weiler says the program had also been targeted by OMB in December 2010. "But I and [NASA Administrator] Charlie [Bolden] fought back on that and eventually won."

Even so, the fight was so debilitating that Weiler says he made up his mind to leave NASA. His earlier stints at the agency included fights over finding money to fix the Hubble Space Telescope and restructure the Mars program, and he says he wasn't ready for yet another one. "I was dealing with officials in OMB who were three, four grade levels below me who did not have any technical background," he says. "I sent an e-mail to Charlie saying this is not about Ed Weiler, this is not about the science mission directorate, this is not even about NASA. This is about the country. We are the only country in the world that has demonstrated the capability to land anything on Mars. How can we allow that to be undermined?"

So Weiler bought a house in Florida. He says he remained mum about his impending retirement to avoid jeopardizing half a dozen mission launches scheduled for the first half of 2011, telling only Bolden and a few close associates.

His current life of walks on the beach, he notes, is much more pleasurable than locking horns with OMB and fending off political body blows from within NASA. "I'm glad to be here, a thousand miles away from the irrationality zone."

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