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Proposed cuts in planetary science take center stage

NASA officials endure slings and arrows of outraged researchers

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THE WOODLANDS, Texas — “I think I’m not supposed to say ‘got whacked.’ Am I allowed to say ‘got whacked?’” asked John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator for science, while considering how to describe the cuts dealt to planetary sciences in President Obama’s proposed 2013 NASA budget.

It’s no secret that planetary sciences got hit badly, cut by more than $300 million (more than 20%) from the year before. Funds are running kind of like water on present-day Mars — one of the hardest-hit exploration programs — seeping, not flowing, and leaving planetary scientists parched and scratching around for answers.

On March 19, Grunsfeld and Jim Green, NASA’s Planetary Science Division Director, addressed a room packed with hundreds of scientists who’d gathered for the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. “Heading to #LPSC2012 for what is sure to be an incredible conjunction of amazing planetary science and amazing planetary science outrage,” tweeted scientist Jim Bell, president of The Planetary Society, before the event.

Had I been Grunsfeld or Green, I might have considered donning a catcher’s mask, just in case someone in the audience used their advanced knowledge of orbital mechanics to questionable advantage. But people were civil (and Grunsfeld and Green are quite popular among the community), even when suggesting the administration had decapitated planetary science.

Among the casualties of the downsized budget are jobs — employment for scientists whose missions are delayed or cut, staff at places like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that manages many of the NASA missions,  and opportunities for scientists in the early stages of joining the community. “Nobody understands fiscal austerity more than recent graduates like myself and other graduate students in the audience,” said Britney Schmidt, a post-doc at the University of Texas at Austin.

She also noted incongruities between the fallout from the budget implosion and the recommendations of the Planetary Science Decadal Survey, which establishes priorities within the community for the next decade.

We’ve aborted a joint mission to Mars with the European Space Agency, and prospects are dismal for any flagship mission that might fly to the outer planets in the near future. Europa, Enceladus, Uranus — you’ll just have to wait to pay those guys a visit. Anyone who knows me knows I don’t like waiting. I want to know what’s beneath or within Europa’s ice shell — now. And what the deal is with that cranky little spitter Enceladus. What secrets to planet formation are hidden in Uranus? The recipe for baking planets is probably stashed inside that most unfortunately named ice giant.

And, I want to know if Mars was as good an incubator for extraterrestrial life as everyone thinks it might have been.

But instead of planetary sciences, NASA has prioritized such projects as the James Webb Space Telescope and human exploration programs. JWST will peer into the deepest reaches of space and time, and neither I nor the people attending the town hall want to hear griping about it. Meanwhile, manned spaceflight more than doubled its budget. Perhaps as a ceremonial Band-Aid, Grunsfeld offered the explanation that human exploration and planetary science might not be so different after all. Sending people to Mars or an asteroid, for example — President Obama’s goals for the next few decades — involves both fields.

“I really think that the planetary program in the Science Mission Directorate is part of that grand exploration and that when we link humans and science, that both win,” Grunsfeld said.

He might have scored a victory when demonstrating how the two areas aren’t such strange bedfellows. “If you could go to Mars today, if you could be a geologist on the surface of Mars, or an astrobiologist on the surface of Mars, would you want to go? I’m going to raise my hand,” he said. Most of the hands in the room shot up, too. “We don’t send [a rover] to Mars so [a rover] can discover things, because it doesn’t discover things. You do,” he replied. “It’s the human experience.”

At its essence, planetary science is a story of adventure, a tale of scientists casting their eyes skyward and flinging machines far from Earth with the singular purpose of scrutinizing our neighbors, the solid spheres and cratered rocks that spangle our evening skies. The study of these bodies is the study of life on Earth — where did we come from, and are we alone? How do these roasted, bruised, icy, shrouded worlds compare to ours? And in place of a round trip and tons of frequent flier miles, what can we learn from a thousand-kilometer stare or epic, backwards wheelie across the Martian Meridiani Planum?

Maybe that’s why the cuts sting so much.

“At your recommendation, I applied to be an astronaut several times. I am ready to go,” Bill Nye said to Grunsfeld. Nye, aka the Science Guy, is now the chair of the board at the Planetary Society — the world’s largest non-governmental space organization, as he describes it. Founded in 1980 by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman, the Planetary Society has been slinging angry words at NASA since the 2013 budget proposal came out.

“I can tell you we’re outraged and dismayed by these proposed cuts,” Bell said. “If implemented, they will represent a step backwards in NASA’s plan to explore our solar system and other planetary systems for evidence of present or past habitable worlds, which is a key focus of public interest in our solar system.”

It really is like being in a candy store (or in my case, a wine bar) and not knowing which tempting wares to spend some time with. In this case, it seems that no matter which are chosen, both sides — and anyone who cares about these things — lose.

Partial listing of current and planned NASA planetary science missions:

MESSENGER, at Mercury
GRAIL, at the moon
Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, at the moon
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, at Mars
Opportunity, still wheeling around Mars
Cassini, at Saturn

En route:
Dawn, now at the asteroid Vesta and leaving for Ceres this summer
Curiosity, en route to Mars, arrival August 5
New Horizons, zipping toward Pluto and the Kuiper belt, arrival 2015
Juno, heading to Jupiter, arrival 2016

MAVEN, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission, to Mars
LADEE, Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, to the moon
OSIRIS-REx, to asteroid RQ36

Discovery-class missions under consideration (selection this summer):
Titan Mare Explorer, to Titan
Chopper, a comet-hopper
InSight, to Mars

Axed and/or delayed:
ExoMars, to Mars (joint with the European Space Agency)
Europa (proposed)
Uranus (proposed)
Enceladus (proposed)

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