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The End of NASA Science

Large and small science projects have been delayed or canceled as NASA reallocates funds to manned space flight.
March 16, 2006

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.

The proposed $16.8 billion for NASA in 2007 showed no net losses (accounting for inflation) with a 3.2 percent increase over 2006. But during the next four years, approximately $3 billion from planetary exploration and basic science will go toward the 17 remaining shuttle missions -– mostly to complete the space station – before the fleet is grounded in 2010.

NASA’s priorities are off kilter, says Robert Park, a physicist at the University of Maryland. The manned missions have not been nearly as successful as the science missions, and money will be cut from the NASA projects that have been most beneficial, says Park. While the ISS and Space Shuttle have produced few scientific or technological gems, he notes, NASA’s science missions have given rise to useful technology, including satellites for climate, global positioning, and communication. “The pity,” says Park, “is [NASA science is] what’s really been working.”

The agency’s space science may suffer the most from a thousand little cuts to small programs, data analysis, and basic research, says Michael Brown, professor of planetary astronomy at the California Institute of Technology. “The fact that they’re cutting the research budget means that I’m not going to be able to fund students,” he says.

These students, many of whom use NASA data to write PhD theses, pour over mountains of numbers to make sense of all of the information collected by roughly 50 spacecraft dispersed throughout the solar system. “We’re out there flying around Saturn, collected data at some incredible rate,” Brown says, “and most of it goes and sits in an archive.”

Without funding for students and post-doctoral researchers, he says, the unprocessed data that has been collected in past and current missions will not be analyzed for decades. Cuts to research funding will hit the science community especially hard, Brown adds, when data starts pouring back from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a spacecraft that entered Mars’ orbit last week and is designed to send back 10 times more information than all other space missions combined.

Scientists say these NASA cuts will affect the development of future research missions and the analysis of data collected from past, current, and future probes, rovers, and satellites. Small research projects, in particular, help to train scientists who join the technology sector and work on non-space-related research and development, scientists say.

Many scientists whose research is funded by the agency are clearly disheartened. “The morale of scientists at NASA has never been anything like this low,” says Park. Moreover, Friedman of The Planetary Society predicts that over the next few years, while research results will dribble in, many scientists will move to other fields.

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