Planetary Science – Because it is Hard


Cutting the NASA budget line for planetary science is a mistake that would start at $309 million in fiscal 2013 but end up in the billions and billions in just a few years. In the space business, $309 million is not an especially large amount of money. Right now, the U.S. House plans to restore a substantial fraction of it — the Senate half of that fraction. If funding is not restored, it would be a substantial cut to programs whose benefits far outweigh their costs. Planetary science missions are the crown jewels of the U.S. space program because they bring us remarkable discoveries, great science, and because they are not routine — because they are hard. Investment in planetary science inherently leads to innovation: the development of new materials, new engineering techniques, new remote sensing technology and ultimately new discoveries. Without a flow of innovations, the U.S. economy will falter and cede billions of dollars to economies in other parts of the world. Planetary science delivers remarkable bangs without costing a great many bucks.

Challenging missions attract our best and brightest — the best of our students, skilled workers, scientists and engineers — people in schools and innovative businesses, big and small, across the country. NASA is an investment in our nation’s future, and science missions are the best investment at NASA. Governments around the world seek partnerships with NASA. They have created their own space agencies, because they have witnessed the immense value of the extraordinary technology developed for space exploration to their society and culture. Space work raises the expectations and ultimately the achievements of their citizens.

We at the Planetary Society advocate for planetary science and the exploration of space. The missions are vital, as they stretch our intellect and technical expertise. They nourish our drive to understand humanity’s place in the universe. Planetary science is the part of NASA that conducts scientifically important missions and makes astonishing discoveries. The U.S. needs more of these missions, not fewer. Cutting planetary science is the wrong direction for the U.S. space program.

The members of our community really do search for and find near-Earth objects. We really do seek out new worlds and new forms of life. Since the beginning of human history, people on Earth have longed to know where we came from and whether or not we are alone in the universe. To seek answers to these questions, we must explore the cosmos. Specifically, we have to explore our solar system, and that is the work of NASA’s Planetary Sciences Division.

For the first time, we have the tools to directly test the hypothesis that life started on other worlds such as Mars, Europa or Enceladus. Such a discovery would have a profound impact on how we view our place in the cosmos. It would be akin to the discoveries made by Copernicus and Galileo. It would change the world.

Also for the first time in history, we have the ability to find, track and perhaps one day deflect an asteroid on its way to striking the Earth. It is the preventable natural disaster. Our success depends on planetary science.

To explore other worlds, NASA works with other agencies and engages scientists and engineers from outside the U.S. If the funds go away, so will these cost-saving partnerships.

If things stay as they are, the planetary science budget will be cut by one-third of a billion dollars this year and another $1.2 billion in the coming years; it is a formula for falling behind. At this rate, the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity, which lands early on the morning of Aug. 6 Eastern time, would mark the end of an era instead of the next step in astrobiology and the search for water and life.

Decision-makers must keep in mind also that Mars is unique. The European Space Agency (ESA) has flown marvelous Mars orbiting spacecraft, but it has never landed one. On Mars, ESA is 0-for-1. In its heyday, the Soviet space program took the first pictures of the far side of the Moon, landed robotic spacecraft there and landed on Venus, but when it comes to Mars, even the Russians are 0-for-21. The ability to build, launch, fly, navigate and land on Mars is uniquely possessed by just a small group of highly trained, talented people within NASA. If their budget is cut, they will be compelled to seek work elsewhere, their expertise lost forever.

Congress and the White House are preparing for the possibility of sequestration — across-the-board cuts. NASA funding could be cut by as much as 12 percent, around $2 billion. Nevertheless, the Planetary Society recommends rebalancing the NASA science budget to restore the $309 million for planetary science in 2013 and to fund it at $1.5 billion going forward, no matter what happens in January.

Some say space exploration is a luxury that we can ill-afford. We flatly disagree. If this cut stands, we will lose extraordinary expertise, and ultimately our economy will suffer in the coming years. Just as important, though, is this: If we don’t keep looking up and out, what does that say about us as a civilization? That we don’t care to know about our origin and our place in space? That we don’t care about the next generation and the future? That we don’t care about technological leadership — and that settles it? Whatever the answer, it’s not good. We are at the brink of the next revolution in scientific understanding. Investment in exploration is what great governments do. Let us press onward and upward by restoring the funding for planetary science.


Bill Nye is chief executive of the Planetary Society.