NASA faces a loss of confidence in its international space-exploration leadership after the unilateral U.S. withdrawal from a series of joint robotic missions to Mars with the European Space Agency.

Instead of working with ESA's ExoMars program on sample-return precursor missions in 2016 and 2018, NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD) will join forces with the Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) directorate and the Office of the Chief Technologist to work up a medium-sized mission in 2018 that may meet the needs of all three NASA units.

In the Obama administrations' fiscal 2013 NASA budget request, the Mars exploration portion of the SMD budget would be cut by $226.2 million, down from $587 million in the current fiscal year. Most of the remaining $360.8 million will go for the nuclear-powered Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) now en route to the red planet, and the upcoming Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (Maven) orbiter scheduled for a launch in 2013 to study its upper atmosphere.

The Mars cut has upset space scientists and their managers on both sides of the Atlantic, and it is sure to be the main topic when NASA officials face their advisory Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group in Washington next week. It will also be an issue when NASA defends its request in Congress.

“Members of the community go to their congresspeople and say, 'this doesn't make any sense; why are we being punished when we were so successful?'” says Scott Hubbard, who served as the agency's first Mars Program Director.

Administrator Charles Bolden has raised the possibility of a European role in that new Mars mission, which will be better defined by mid-summer. But European space leaders he spoke to last week are lukewarm to the idea. For some ESA members, a lack of enthusiasm for partnerships with NASA is moving beyond robotic Mars missions to the complex set of barter deals that make up the international human spaceflight endeavor.

Two of Europe's biggest International Space Station contributors have rejected a NASA proposal that would see ESA pay its share of station operating costs by building a propulsion module for NASA's Orion crew transport capsule (AW&ST Jan. 9, p. 42). They say the proposal is technologically lackluster and unlikely to generate much public support. At the same time, ESA's leadership is advancing a proposal to substitute Russia for NASA in the ExoMars work.

After NASA abruptly pulled out of talks in December that held the promise of a three-pronged approach to the Mars campaign, ESA and Russia pressed on with a bilateral solution. Rolf de Groot, head of ESA's Robotic Exploration Coordination Office, says a bilateral technical-feasibility report was delivered Feb. 7 to ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain and Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin. The study assumes Russia will pick up most of NASA's planned contributions to ExoMars, but also could require ESA to seek funding on top of the program's current €1 billion ($1.3 billion) price tag.

Johann-Dietrich Woerner, head of German aerospace center DLR, says the situation with ExoMars, which started out as a single-launch technology demo valued at €650 million, “is quite embarrassing.” In an interview, he said it is difficult to believe a bilateral ExoMars campaign with Russia could be substantially less expensive than the joint ESA-NASA mission.

“We will not accept higher contributions on our part,” he asserts.

ESA spokesman Franco Bonacina says the agency's heads of delegation met Feb. 15 to discuss the ExoMars situation but that no decisions will be taken until the ESA council meets in March.

“We are pushing hard to do ExoMars the way it was supposed to be done,” Bonacina says, adding that while Russian participation in ExoMars could bring science instruments and launchers to the program, Roscosmos would be unable to provide a landing system for the rover campaign in 2018.

“They have no capacity for that,” Bonacina said. “Either we find more money within ESA to build our own lander, or we have to see what the mission would look like.”

“Tough choices had to be made,” Bolden says of NASA's $17.7 billion budget request, which includes funds to finish and launch the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), continue development of the heavy-lift Space Launch System and Orion multipurpose crew vehicle, and maintain the already delayed schedule for seeding a commercial space transportation industry to low Earth orbit.

Science and human exploration have many of the same goals at Mars, says John Grunsfeld, NASA's new associate administrator for science, suggesting that robotic and human geologists and astrobiologists would be seeking the same evidence for possible life and habitability at the planet. And William Gerstenmaier, the HEO associate administrator, notes that MSL is gathering radiation data now on its way to Mars that will aid in the design of future human spacecraft, and it will collect more data on atmospheric entry with its large heat shield when it arrives on the night of Aug. 5-6.

But Gerstenmaier also oversees the ISS, and the international arrangements that govern its operations are starting to fray. ESA is slated to hash out a new multiyear budget in November, when its 19 member governments are expected to debate continued participation in the ISS—and how to pay for it—beyond 2015. Ultimately, European governments could decide to end their participation in the station in 2015 if NASA and ESA are unable to agree on a barter arrangement.

For now, participating ESA member governments are covering their share of space station utilities and other operating expenses with routine supply runs of the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV). However, with only three ATV missions remaining, ESA members are weighing a follow-on barter arrangement with NASA to cover about €450 million ($600 million) in station utilities costs anticipated in 2017-20.

Enrico Saggese, head of Italian space agency ASI, says Italy remains committed to the space station and expects to invest a total of €1.52 billion in the program through 2020. But, while NASA has expressed a preference for the Orion service-module barter element—a plan that would incorporate Italian-made ATV technology into the multipurpose crew vehicle—he argues that Europe has moved beyond such capabilities. For ESA, he says, the proposal would amount to “a negative application” of the agency's technological prowess.

“The role for Europe would be too low,” says Saggese, who plans to discuss the barter arrangement and other cooperative projects with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden next month on the sidelines of the Satellite 2012 conference in Washington.

Yannick d'Escatha, head of French space agency CNES, also says Europe's ISS barter element should engage a more innovative technology development in an effort to raise ESA's technological profile and garner more public backing for European space programs. Specifically, d'Escatha says France would like to develop a vehicle capable of collecting orbital debris that could also have sample-return applications for exploration missions.

“We are not interested in the service module,” d'Escatha said in January.

NASA—and possibly ESA—will work over the next few months to devise a New Frontiers-class Mars mission, with total cost capped at $700 million, for the 2018 window. Meanwhile, the agency's astrophysics community is reassured that the JWST will finally start on its way to the Earth-Sun L-2 Lagrangian point in 2018.

Bill Ochs, the project manager brought in after an independent panel found a $1.4 billion shortfall in completing the 6.5-meter (21.3-ft.) infrared space telescope, says development of the extremely complex observatory remains on target to stay within its $8 billion total cost cap. So far, the new system of monthly milestones tracked by NASA headquarters is working well, he says.

Aside from the change in the Mars program, and the $627.6 million request for the JWST—up from $518.6 million this year—most of the NASA budget is fairly flat compared to the funds actually received in 2012, according to Beth Robinson, NASA's chief financial officer. But compared to earlier out-year projections, it is off by about $700 million, she says.

Because NASA is “protecting the civil service workforce,” job losses resulting from that cut will be felt among contractor personnel and at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is run by the California Institute of Technology. Contractor job cuts are already well understood, according to Robinson, but the impact of changes in the Mars work at JPL remains to be seen. Overall, some 300-400 jobs that will be lost as development on MSL winds down may not be preserved with new work, Robinson says.