Steve Squyres, the Cornell University professor who led NASA’s overachieving Mars Exploration Rover program, did the planetary science community a tremendous service this past year by delivering a 10-year robotic exploration plan — “Vision and Voyages for Planetary Science in the Decade 2013-2022” — that embraces, rather than rejects, today’s budget outlook.
While that might seem like a small accomplishment, consider the 10-year plan for space-based Earth science research the U.S. National Research Council released at the start of 2007. Anticipating that the coming presidential election would install an administration supportive of climate change research, the Earth science decadal survey committee tasked NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with undertaking 17 new climate observation missions by the early 2020s. NASA’s Earth science program did see a budget increase under the administration of President Barack Obama, but not the kind of robust growth assumed by the decadal survey, much to the disappointment of the Earth science community.
Without a doubt, climate research has a leg up on planetary science when it comes to urgency; diagnosing the causes and consequences of global warming is rightfully of more immediate concern to policymakers and the public than reconnoitering Mars and rendezvousing with an asteroid.
Nevertheless, under Squyres’ leadership the planetary science decadal survey committee got it right when it presented NASA this past winter with a restrained plan that anointed one big-ticket priority — Mars sample return — and set guidelines for dealing with lower-than-expected budgets. As a result, planetary scientists are likely to be far better prepared for what looks to be an extended period of budgetary austerity than their counterparts in the Earth science community. NASA, meanwhile, is less likely to spend money up front studying missions that it won’t be able to afford in the long run.