The Planetary Society is in the midst of its most hard-fought political campaign: Save Our Science, SOS, to restore the $3 billion of planned research, analysis and missions that have been cut from NASA space science plans over the next five years.
SOS is, of course, the historic Morse code signal for help: dot-dot-dot, dash-dash-dash, dot-dot-dot. Maybe we should add one more dash at the end, changing the “S” to “V,” to make it SOV — Save Our Vision. For it is not just NASA’s space science that is threatened, but also the entire Vision for Space Exploration.
As originally formulated in January 2004, the vision was more than a redirection of human spaceflight to the Moon and Mars, although it was also that. It included a vigorous commitment to extending human presence into the solar system through robotic missions, including exploring moons of the outer planets as part of the search for extraterrestrial life, and finding terrestrial planets around other stars.
Cataracts have now clouded that vision, as all robotic precursors for humans on Mars have been eliminated from NASA planning. Indeed all human Mars preparations are gone. The $3 billion cut proposed this year also eliminates the mission to Europa, thought by many to be the most likely place to find extraterrestrial life in our solar system because of its underground ocean. And the proposed budget eliminates planning for the Terrestrial Planet Finder, along with a host of other missions and research programs related to the question of extraterrestrial life.
NASA’s great feats of exploration of the last decade have been robotic missions like the Hubble Space Telescope, Mars Exploration Rovers, Cassini-Huygens, Deep Impact and Stardust. One of the ironies of the current budget debate is that the word “exploration” has been hijacked to mean “human spaceflight” and science is seen to compete with exploration. But exploration, as originally defined by the Vision for Space Exploration, had a rich basis in science, both robotic and human. Now, elimination of so much science planning undermines exploration and could destroy its essential foundation.
We took our SOS campaign to Washington during the week of May 22. Our advertisements in TheWashington Post and Congressional Roll Call included a stark graphic with the theme “Don’t Trash Space Science.” Many notables, including three Nobel Laureates, signed the ads. We brought “Titanic” director and dedicated ocean explorer James Cameron, Planetary Society Vice President Bill Nye “the Science Guy” and planetary scientist Heidi Hammel to the House Science Committee hearing room to speak to dozens of congressional staff. We also presented a petition, signed by thousands, to the House and Senate Appropriations committees, calling on them to restore the science funding that the administration proposes to eliminate.
Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas ) came to our event to assert his objections to the administration’s budget and his determination to add funding for science at NASA. He strongly supported a new start on the Europa mission and is fighting hard to save it. His speech was so strong, I wasn’t sure if we were lobbying him, or if he was lobbying us.
We also met with Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md. ), who has long been the leader in the U.S. Senate in supporting space science. She described a plan to seek emergency funds for the shuttle program as it recovers from the Columbia accident. Similar funds were provided after the Challenger accident, but they were not offered post-Columbia, despite more than three years of costly changes. NASA admits that the $3 billion cut to space science is a direct result of unbudgeted shuttle recovery costs. Sen. Mikulski’s simple proposal is that those extraordinary recovery costs should come from an emergency fund, not from space science.
Many times in the past, Sen. Mikulski and her committee have helped space science: They increased Mars funding in the late 1990s and early 2000s; supported a mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt that the administration tried to cancel ; continued Voyager tracking; and kept open the option for Hubble repair when NASA opposed all of these. She has supported the Vision for Space Exploration despite its origin from another party and its focus on missions not from her home state.
We now seek her support for the Europa mission, which she has described as fascinating and worthy. Last year, both the House and Senate Appropriations committees directed NASA to prepare a plan for its new start this year, but NASA has refused.
Sen. Mikulski has started rounding up Republican support for the emergency funding for shuttle and begun talks with the White House. She asks for our support — and we firmly offer it. We, in turn, ask the whole aerospace community to join with her, and provide all the support it can — in Congress with local and committee representatives and senators, and in the administration, including NASA. Help get the emergency funds added to the NASA budget.
This is only a one-year fix, and fiscal years 2008-’10 will still be over subscribed as NASA Administrator Mike Griffin seeks to accelerate the new Crew Exploration Vehicle while simultaneously paying for the remaining shuttle flights to the space station and to Hubble. But a fix now opens up the possibility of more flexibility and future fixes, and most importantly, it rejects the principle that NASA should try to pursue the vision without pursuing the science. It provides a solid basis for going forward with the vision.
The emergency funding could restore science programs and missions that NASA already is canceling. That could not only Save Our Science; it could also save the Vision for Space Exploration.
Louis Friedman is executive director of The Planetary Society.