Phil at the Bad Astronomer breathes a sigh of relief that an amendment by Barney Frank to prevent NASA from spending money on a manned mission to Mars has been defeated in the House. I haven’t been following this issue closely, so I’m not precisely sure what the amendment says, but from the looks of it I completely disagree with Phil. If I understand it correctly, the bill would not have cut NASA funding at all, just have prevented it from being used for the specific purpose of studying the possibility of sending astronauts to Mars. There is a huge difference between those two things.
Right now NASA is seriously underfunded, and there are three huge drains on the budget: the shuttle program, the Space Station, and the Moon/Mars initiative, all of which are mismanaged money pits. What is being hurt in all this is real science, which is being cut to the bone — essentially all of the Beyond Einstein missions (to study black holes, dark energy, and inflation) have been delayed, some essentially indefinitely. Studying Mars is interesting and fascinating. Spending money now on the idea of sending human astronauts to Mars is a politically-motivated boondoggle. There used to be a sensible procedure by which priorities were set, in which high-powered National Academy panels would look over the possibilities and use sensible scientific criteria to decide what was both interesting and feasible. The Bush administration has made a shambles of that process, and it has to stop.
Astrophysics in space, the one thing that NASA does well, is being killed off. The Moon/Mars initiative, according to people who know a lot more about the political wrangling than I do, is directly to blame. Sorry to hear that the amendment didn’t pass.