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Tuesday marks a significant event for the US military. The first F-35 Lightning II, the product of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program that started in 1996, will be placed into service after an inauguration ceremony at a Marine Corps Air Station in Arizona. This will be the first of sixteen F-35s assigned to a newly minted Marine fighter squadron, scheduled to be in full operation next year.
Of course, these new fifth-generation fighters are not cheap; each costing around $240 million. These pricey jets, combined with the Department of Defense’s estimated half of a billion dollars in facility upgrades to house these planes, bring the total cost of this new Marine squadron to $40 billion.
The estimated $1 trillion cost of the JSF program dwarfs that of NASA’s $25 billion Apollo program. Yet, despite NASA’s historical successes and technological breakthroughs, its budget will face another round of crippling cuts next year that is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
These cuts are now becoming a trend for the White House based on recent fiscal budget proposals sent to Congress. To put this into context, consider the White House’s 2010 NASA budget proposal of $18.69 billion versus 2013’s proposal of $17.7 billion. This is in spite of the US government’s plan to spend tens of billions of dollars next year on more JSF aircraft, which have been riddled with safety issues and costly production delays for over a decade.
These staggering cuts have affected the US space agency significantly, with the most notable impact being the cancellation of all future “flagship” missions that were planned to explore various destinations within our solar system. The cancelled programs included a trip to Jupiter’s moon Europa, which is theorized to have vast oceans beneath its icy surface — the key component to finding life outside our planet.
Another major change will be the shrinking of the Mars exploration program, which NASA’s administrator Charles Bolden said will force a “recalibrating [of] our Mars science program.”
However, the bad news for NASA may not end with the cuts from the White House. It will have an even more miniscule budget if we fall off the fiscal cliff come January. This is according to the sequestration bill that is set to trigger $1.2 trillion in federal spending cuts if congress and the president do not reach an agreement by January 2. If the sequester goes into effect, NASA will immediately lose another $1.3 billion in funding.
Fortunately, the government contractor, Lockheed Martin, will have no such worries come January’s fiscal crisis, because their scheduled production of F-35s next year has already been paid in advance, even though recent reports from government officials indicate continuing delays in their production until 2019.
This should not concern the public because the F-35 has yet to find an enemy, or purpose, beyond the role-playing war games it is scheduled to participate in during the early part of 2013. It is just unfortunate that these war games cannot provide the hundreds of billions of dollars in profits that NASA has consistently provided the US for over 50 years, thus illustrating the absurdity of Washington’s economic plan which subsequently sinks the prospects of space exploration along the way.