The U.S. space science community is struggling today as the planned space science program is being scaled back, high-priority missions are being delayed or cancel ed, and the funding available for space science research and analysis (R&A) programs is being cut.
Part of the problem is that funding is being taken either directly or indirectly from the planned science programs to support the space shuttle, the space station and the crew exploration vehicle (CEV) — endeavors that are not widely valued by the science community.
The situation is often expressed as the distinction between exploration and science or between the human and robotic components of the space program. These actions have led to antagonism and distrust between the science community and NASA Administrator Mike Griffin. It is discouraging that this is happening in the midst of what is arguably the most exciting and successful era of space exploration ever. At this critical juncture, it is vital that we develop an integrated space exploration and science program that values both the human and the robotic sides of the house (albeit for different reasons).
To start, we scientists must embrace the idea that having humans in space is a valuable exploration activity. Many of us are in this business because of the excitement created by the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and shuttle missions. We recall and celebrate the excitement of the Moon landings, for example, not just because of their science value (which is indisputable) but because of the tremendous achievement in pushing the envelope of what humans can accomplish. It would be a shame and a huge societal disappointment if we lost the capability to send people into space or the interest in doing so.
The science community must accept that NASA has been given a mandate to complete the space station utilizing the shuttle and to develop the CEV. In particular, having a long-term and continuous human presence in space as afforded by the completed space station and continuing the long-term exploration of the Moon will not be small accomplishments, and will contribute both to space science and to the public’s interest in space exploration.
As scientists, we need to take advantage of the opportunity afforded by these programs. Going to the Moon is an interim step on the pathway to human landings on Mars, as outlined by U.S. President George W. Bush in his January 2004 speech introducing the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). However, we do not today have the capability to carry out a human Mars mission successfully.
Scientists need to understand and accept that science isn’t the only goal of sending humans into space and, in fact, isn’t even the primary goal. Congress and the public certainly value the science, as evidenced by their support for and tremendous interest in the Hubble Space Telescope images, the adventures of the Mars rovers, the recent debate over whether or not Pluto is a planet, and many other programs. But people also value the sheer drama of humans venturing into the unknown and of pushing against the limits of what we can accomplish as individuals and as a society.
The history of space exploration shows the tremendous synergy between the human and the robotic programs — each would be significantly diminished without the other. The science alone might not justify the space science program without the broader national commitment to having a vigorous space program as a whole; we note that NASA’s robotic space science program is funded at a level of about $5.3 billion per year, comparable in size to the budget of the entire National Science Foundation.
Similarly, science in general and the potential human ability to carry out science is an important component of the human space exploration program. As long as humans are venturing into space, we must insist that they do good science.
Space exploration cannot succeed without science, and science itself is a form of exploration. Combined, science and exploration represent a powerful, integrated, win-win approach to the space program. Implementing the vision in such a way, as originally put forward by President Bush, would represent an outstanding synthesis of the best of human activity in space and scientific research that together would allow us to better understand our home planet, the worlds around us and our place in the universe.
What can we do to motivate and maintain a vigorous space science and exploration program and re-establish trust within our community?
First, NASA and the space science community together must construct a coherent science program that involves a balance between large flagship , medium and small missions, the research and analysis programs and technology development for future missions. There is much more outstanding science than can be done, but the $5.3 billion annual science budget should allow construction of a vigorous, far-reaching, forward-looking space science program. The foundation for such a program must come from community-wide activities like the National Research Council Decadal Surveys of astronomy, planetary science, space physics and Earth science.
As a community, we must insist on developing a long-term approach to the space science program, not one adjusted solely to balance the budget this year. Currently little thought appears to be going into what the program should look like in, for example, five years and how we can get there from here.
Second, scientists need to be assured of continuity of funding for whatever science initiatives are agreed upon, but not because we feel entitled to it. Instead, we must counter the real or perceived environment of constant budget uncertainty — such as starting a program then canceling it or delaying it, or inadequately planning for the scientific analysis of mission data — which wastes scarce dollars and demoralizes the community.
If NASA is unable to make mission and R&A funding decisions and then stick to them, young scientists will be driven away from the field, and the best scientists already in the field will leave for greener, or at least consistently green, pastures.
NASA and the community also must insist on, and develop means for, cost containment in the agency’s programs, especially the excessive cost growth on large missions that currently is resolved only by taking money from other programs. Uncertainty and instability in the research and analysis programs also places the science at risk and undermines the ability of those programs to make discoveries that provide the new knowledge that defines, justifies and motivates subsequent missions. Unless this problem is resolved cooperatively within our community, we could lose our leadership in these areas and not be able to recover it.
Third, NASA engineers, managers and administrators must acknowledge and accept that science should be an integral part of the human exploration program, and not an add-on marginal component that can be cut to solve funding problems elsewhere. The idea that exploration enables science and science enables exploration must be embraced, visibly and publicly, by all involved, for the exploration program to succeed.
NASA and the public all benefit from having an integrated program in which all parts — human and robotic, science and exploration — are vigorous, forward-looking, and funded at appropriate and consistent levels. Schisms and parochialism hurt us all and damage our ability to explore, learn and grow. We in the space exploration community are fortunate to receive broad public support, including significant sums of taxpayer dollars. Let’s find ways to move forward and explore together, to justify that support and to maximize the return to the public on that investment.
Bruce Jakosky is professor and associate director for science at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, University of Colorado.
Jim Bell is an associate professor of astronomy and directs the MarsLab in the Department of Astronomy at Cornell University.