In response to what he called “unacceptable” cuts to science programs in NASA’s 2007 budget request, Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) has taken up the cause of the U.S. scientists and engineers who have been expressing outrage about the proposed reductions.
In a March 9 “urgent personal letter” to the scientific community, Culberson said he is adamant about restoring funding for such items as a mission to Europa and space science research within NASA.
Culberson specifically cited actions in the NASA 2007 budget request like the cancellation of missions like the Terrestrial Planet Finder, a long-sought mission to Europa, a significant cut in funding for astrobiology research and other actions that “cannibalize” NASA’s scientific research.
NASA’s 2007 budget request would increase spending on science programs by 1.5 percent next year. But the five-year plan that accompanied the budget request is $3.07 billion less through 2010 than the amount NASA included in previous long-range plans. Astrobiology would be reduced by about 50 percent in 2007.
“Eliminating virtually all scientific research funded by NASA and canceling the Europa mission is completely unacceptable to me,” Culberson stated in his letter.
In his letter, Culberson laid out a strategy for finding federal dollars to pump into NASA to fend off the proposed cuts, slowdowns, deferrals and outright cancellation of space science projects . One source of funds he identified is what he described as a surplus of money within the bureaucracy of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
At least part of that surplus, Culbertson wrote, can be sent “where it is needed most for the nation’s security in the future — for scientific research and planetary exploration that NASA is now canceling.”
He also urged scientists to get involved in solving the budget shortfall. “Time is short. It is urgent that your letters and phone calls go out right away.”
NASA kicked off the new interdisciplinary field of astrobiology in the mid-1990s. Since then, it has rapidly become a key area of study for the space exploration mission, be it in Mars studies or probing faraway moons such as Jupiter’s Europa or Saturn’s Titan.
As to why astrobiology has been cut — and why so large — it is about money, said Thomas Pierson, chief executive officer of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif.
“NASA is not being given enough money to do all of its assigned tasks,” Pierson said. As to why so large a cut, he added, from the community’s perspective, “there is no justifiable reason.”
NASA’s rationale was included in a March 13 “Dear Colleague” letter from Mary Cleave, NASA associate administrator for science.
Astrobiology research funding was reduced “for several reasons,” Cleave wrote.
“The lower flight rate for Mars missions, plus the recognition that human exploration missions to Mars are further in the future than previously assumed, have reduced some of the urgency for rapid progress in astrobiology research,” Cleave said. “It should also be noted that astrobiology experienced a rapid growth in funding several years ago, and this reduction brings it more into balance with the rest of the research program.”
“This worries me,” said Jonathan Lunine, professor of planetary sciences and of physics at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “The reasoning cited in Associate Administrator Cleave’s letter is that the lower flight rate envisioned to Mars makes the current level of astrobiological research inappropriate. But we are in the midst of a flood of new results right now — at Mars with Stardust, at Titan, at Enceladus with new extrasolar planet discoveries and so on.”
The SETI Institute’s Pierson said astrobiology is the brand new field of choice for thousands of the best and brightest students in the United States.
“There is an entire generation just now leaving school with their advanced degrees, and NASA is saying to them: ‘Whoops, we really didn’t mean it. Please stand by for five or 10 years and we’ll get back to you.’ These are our best and brightest students, and NASA cannot in good conscience pull the plug on the future of space science. They won’t be there when NASA needs them again in the coming years,” Pierson said.
For NASA to precipitously scale back their support now will be catastrophic, Pierson added. “It will create a permanent black eye for NASA, and for U.S. science.”