Commentary | To Explore or Not To Explore, That is the Question

by and

When U.S. President Barack Obama called NASA’s Curiosity rover team shortly after its successful landing on Mars, he said, “We’re fortunate to be part of a society that can reach beyond our planet and explore frontiers that were only imagined by our ancestors. … I’m going to give you guys a personal commitment to protect these critical investments in science and technology.” The president’s words reflect a clear understanding that NASA’s planetary scientists and engineers are a unique asset to our society. NASA is the only organization in the world that has demonstrated the ability to design, build, launch, land and drive a spacecraft on Mars.

This space exploration capability uniquely positions humanity to answer at last one of the most fundamental, compelling and inspiring of questions: Is there life beyond Earth? With the capabilities that missions like Curiosity drive us to develop, there is no doubt that the answer to this question is within our reach.

Sadly, instead of protecting and building upon our investments in this area, the administration’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2013 and beyond would retreat from U.S. leadership in this unique capability that is admired and envied by the world. The proposed budget would eliminate funding for new strategic planetary science missions and dramatically retard the cadence of even low-cost, competed missions to explore the solar system.

We were elected to represent professional solar system explorers as presidents of the Planetary Sciences Section of the American Geophysical Union and the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences. In part due to our communities’ making their voices heard, members of Congress continue work to restore a large portion of the serious cut to the fiscal 2013 NASA planetary science budget. Although the final budget is not expected to be enacted for some months, this effort enjoys bipartisan support in both houses of Congress. On behalf of our colleagues, we thank the members and staffers who are fighting for the future of planetary exploration. We also applaud the Obama administration for the vision shown to date in supporting Curiosity’s grand mission, one that not only uplifts our spirit as a people but also provides significant additional benefits to our nation. Among these benefits, as amply demonstrated by the tremendous public interest and support, this daring accomplishment provides a powerful source of inspiration to our youth to seek careers in science and engineering.

Now we must turn our attention to the next president’s budget. Working together with NASA, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) will finalize the space agency’s fiscal year 2014 budget in the coming months, with key decisions being made in the next few weeks. In spite of the clear will of Congress to restore funding for planetary science, there is a significant possibility that the cuts seen this year will be carried forward or even magnified in the 2014 budget and for several years after that.

Continuing the cuts in NASA’s planetary science program in the 2014 budget would render Curiosity an end point rather than the next major steppingstone in a multigenerational quest. Two years and thousands of hours of work were spent forging a strong consensus among planetary scientists that returning carefully selected samples from the surface of Mars for analysis in the best labs on Earth is the next essential step. Doing so is the top recommendation of the recent U.S. National Research Council (NRC) planetary science decadal survey, titled “Visions and Voyages for Planetary Science in the Decade 2013-2022.” The NRC also recognizes Jupiter’s “ocean world” Europa as a compelling potential habitat for life and therefore recommends it as the next high-priority large mission in a balanced portfolio of large, medium and small missions. The currently proposed budget cuts for NASA’s planetary science program would render these priorities moot, and the community consensus model for arriving at them severely undermined.

Great nations embark upon great endeavors. The quest to answer the question “Is there life beyond Earth?” is such an endeavor. We respectfully urge the administration to restore the modest funding that is required for NASA to lead the way in this inspiring pursuit by funding the planetary science program to at least the fiscal 2012 level. Doing so would strengthen American leadership in this critical field and yield both tangible and intangible dividends far in excess of the modest investment.

Laurie Leshin is dean of the School of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and president of the Planetary Sciences Section of the American Geophysical Union. Daniel Britt is professor of physics at the University of Central Florida and president of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society.