The $15 Million Budget Battle That May End Outer Solar System Exploration

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People used to dream of traveling to other stars, of seeing Saturn's rings with their own eyes, and of landing on the moons of Jupiter. At least I did, and I'm sure many other nerdy little kids did, too. There was "to boldly go where no man has gone before" and more recently, "to infinity and beyond." 


Then there is the bureaucratic mess that actually defines the U.S. space program and its politics. Space Politics reports that the Senate energy appropriations bill that just passed does not include the $15 million needed for the production of Plutonium 238. Tiny amounts of the isotope used to power outer solar system missions through their radioisotope electric generators. The isotope has been made by the Department of Energy but largely used by NASA. In cutting its funding from the DOE budget, the House noted that problem, but the Senate didn't even do that. Either way, Pu-238 isn't getting made and that could spell trouble for missions to the outer reaches of our solar system.

Missions like Cassini-Huygens, which has delivered stunning images of Saturn and Voyager 1, which represents humanity's farthest push into outer space, use radioisotope generators. Just to put the $15 million in perspective. The 2010 Federal budget was about $3,500 thousand million.

A committee that looked at possible outer solar system missions said it was "alarmed" at the lack of plutonium production. "Without a restart of plutonium-238 production, it will be impossible for the United States, or any other country, to conduct certain important types of planetary missions after this decade," their final report warned.


Right now, the US can purchase tiny amounts of Pu-238 from Russia, but it's unclear how large their supply is or how willing the country will be to sell the stuff to us. 

As it is with transport to the International Space Station after the end of the Shuttle program, so it is with Pu-238: we're dependent on the Russians without forging a real international partnership. 

It's not so much a space race anymore, as it is two old runners swapping stories about the excitement of the 1968 Olympics and delving into the finer points of accounting.


Image: NASA/Cassini.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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