When President Bush unveiled his proposed budget last month, it was clear that the winners at NASA were the Space Shuttle program and International Space Station (ISS), and the losers were science missions. Now it’s becoming clear just how bad those losses are. In the view of many experts, the most historically successful NASA efforts – telescopes, space probes, and research into everything from climate change to aviation safety – are taking the worst hits.
Within the past month, several NASA missions have been cancelled or delayed due to the constraints of the proposed 2007 budget. Funding for small research projects and data analysis will be slashed; astrobiology will be cut by 50 percent; astronomy and astrophysics will lose 20 percent of its funds over the next five years; and money for aeronautics research will be cut by 18 percent.
Most shocking to many scientists was the cancellation of a mission to send a probe to study Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. The National Academy of Sciences and NASA advisory committees deemed exploring Europa to be a high priority, after Mars exploration, because the moon’s icy surface is believed to hide oceans with the potential for life. “We were told in October that we would have money,” says Fran Bagenal, and astrophysicist at the University of Colorado. “A lot of people have been working on the Europa mission for a decade. It’s a huge disappointment.”
The cancellation of the Europa mission is even more frustrating for scientists in light of recent images from the Cassini spacecraft’s mission to Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, says Louis Friedman, executive director of The Planetary Society. “Just last week we had the Enceladus finding, where a fantastic water spout was coming out of that moon,” which indicated the possibility of life, he says. “There’s something profound there. But all you have to do is project 10 years out and this isn’t going to be happening.”
And two telescope missions have been cancelled. One is the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) – a telescope that has been already fully installed in a 747 Boeing aircraft. SOFIA would have studied the universe in the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, a part of the spectrum invisible to optical telescopes such as Hubble. Events such as galaxy formation can be detected in the infrared. The first test flights were scheduled for this year.
A second telescope project, called the Terrestrial Planet Finder, would have studied the formation of planets beyond our solar system. Many of these planets have been discovered in the past few years, fueling hopes that life may exist elsewhere, too. The mission had not yet been approved, but preliminary development had begun.