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Cash-Strapped NASA Delays Mars Journey

Grim-faced NASA officials went before the cameras today with bad news for Mars aficionados. Given a series of technical troubles, the agency will delay launch of the Mars Science Laboratory for nearly 2 years. Instead of sending the complex probe toward the Red Planet next fall, the spacecraft won't begin its journey until late in 2011. Though the problems may be ironed out soon, the relative orbital positions of Earth and Mars necessitates a 26-month delay.

That decision is also bad news for scientists working on other Mars and planetary science projects, since the delay will increase the mission's price tag another $400 million. That, warns NASA Science Chief Ed Weiler, will have an impact on other spacecraft. While he doesn't expect to have to cancel other projects, he warns delays are likely. But the alternative—putting the probe en route to Mars next fall—was not an option. "We're avoiding a mad dash to launch," he says. "Failure is not an option."

Weiler's predecessor Alan Stern, who recently blasted NASA management of the Laboratory mission in a letter to Science and an editorial in the New York Times, called the decision "disheartening" and "predictable almost a year ago." And, he adds, it likely will not mark an end to the overruns.

The delay coupled with the financial collapse around the world is forcing both the U.S. and Europe to combine their martian efforts to create a sturdier, long-term plan to explore the planet. Weiler says that European Space Agency officials yesterday agreed that future missions—including a 2016 launch—should be planned and executed together. So look for a cash-strapped Obama Administration to push for closer international ties in coming years.