Some of the most notable missions on NASA’s scientific agenda would be postponed indefinitely or canceled under the agency’s new budget, despite its administrator’s vow to Congress six months ago that not “one thin dime” would be taken from space science to pay for President Bush’s plan to send astronauts to the Moon and Mars.
The cuts come to $3 billion over the next five years, even as NASA’s overall spending grows by 3.2 percent this year, to $16.8 billion. They come against a backdrop of criticism over efforts by White House appointees to mute public statements by NASA’s climate scientists.
Among the casualties of the budget cuts are attempts to look for habitable planets and perhaps life elsewhere in the galaxy, an investigation of the dark energy that seems to be ripping the universe apart, bringing a sample of Mars back home to Earth, and exploring for life under the ice of Jupiter’s moon Europa â€” as well as numerous smaller programs and individual research projects that astronomers say are the wellsprings of new science and new scientists.
Ever since the Bush Administration charged the space agency with getting back to the moon by 2020, scientists have been waiting for the other budget shoe to drop. While going to the moon and establishing some kind of permanent presence there is a noble goal, if we’re not willing to fund other, equally ambitious unmanned projects, NASA’s reason for being in existence in the first place evaporates.
It used to be that major breakthroughs in science could be accomplished by the lone researcher, plodding away for years in his basement lab using makeshift tools with only his brain and the powers of reason that God gave him as his guide. His “funding” would come from rich friends or perhaps the researcher himself was independently wealthy.
Even the spectacular breakthroughs in uncovering the secrets of the atom by Ernest Rutherford at the beginning of the 20th century were accomplished in an old, drafty manor house in the English countryside with most of his funds coming from private donors and grants from the Royal Society. Rutherford’s secret weapon was the cadre of some of the most brilliant young scientific minds in history who helped him build the first complete atomic model but whose methods of experimentation were remarkably simply and inexpensive.
No more. Today, in order to unlock the secrets of the universe – both the very large and very small – governments must contribute billions of dollars to fund the enormous projects that drive scientific inquiry. The $12 billion dollar fusion reactor called Iter which could produce the long-sought clean energy created by atomic fusion is funded by a consortium of a dozen countries. And the cost of the Webb Space Telescope (replacing the Hubble) has already almost doubled from its original estimate of $2.8 billion to its current bloat of $4.5 billion. Private industry couldn’t possibly come up with this kind of money nor would they want to. These kinds of projects are pure science with little or no immediate commercial value. Only governments can lay out these kind of expenditures.
But by funding the $104 billion dollar Return to the Moon program, NASA is finding that the high profile mission is sucking up precious funds, causing the cancellation or delay of some of the most exciting and worthwhile exploration programs on the boards. The James Webb Space Telescope that would have to be delayed if we go ahead with the moon mission (and necessitate another Shuttle repair mission to the Hubble costing $300 million or more), is being designed to blot out the light from stars with planets circling them so that we would actually be able to see if the extrasolar bodies were capable of sustaining life. And the mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa may have been the most ambitious and interesting space effort in history.
Plans called for an unmanned probe to land on Europa’s surface where many scientists are convinced a vast ocean lies underneath a 1-2 mile icecap. The probe would have released a heat generating, sensor-filled wire extension which could have melted through the ice and explored the ocean underneath to search for possible signs of life.
Other delayed or cancelled missions include a Mars Sampling mission and a cancellation of a plethora of smaller missions that come under the rubric of “The Explorer” program:
Much of the concern among scientists is for the fate of smaller projects like the low-budget spacecraft called Explorers. Designed to provide relatively cheap and fast access to space, they are usually developed and managed by university groups. Dr. Lamb referred to them as “the crown jewels in NASA’s science program.”
In recent years, one such mission, the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, produced exquisite baby pictures of the Big Bang, while another, the Swift satellite, has help solve the a 30-year-old mystery, linking distant explosions called gamma-ray bursts to the formation of black holes.
Explorers, Dr. Lamb said, are where graduate students and young professors get their first taste of space science. Until recently about one mission was launched per year, but under the new plan, there will be none at all from 2009 to 2012. In a letter to Dr. Cleave last fall, 16 present and former Explorer scientists said, “Such a lengthy suspension would be a devastating blow to the program and the science community.”
Where do you suppose our scientific leaders are going to come from in the future? Not from the Explorer program.
One would think that NASA would get input from those most affected by these cuts before announcing them. Guess again:
Dr. Griffin and his colleagues, the scientists agree, haves tough choices to make, but the so far, the space scientists complain, the choices have been made in a vacuum, without input from the community most affected, namely them. Last year NASA dismantled a longstanding network of scientific advisory committees, and while a new network of committees is in the works, it is not yet in place.
As a result, Dr. Beichman said, “Scientists feel very much left out of this process. You could have involved the community and said “here’s what we have to do.”
He added, “In the end, even scientists can be responsible.”
If scientists can be responsible, why not the bureaucratic Scrooges at NASA?