While NASA administrator Charles Bolden was defending the administration’s budget request before House appropriators earlier this week, other NASA officials were left to explain the consequences of those cuts to an audience even less pleased with the proposal: the planetary sciences community.
“I wish I had a good succinct answer” for why NASA’s planetary science budget received a 20% cut in the fiscal year 2013 budget proposal, said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science, at the “NASA Night” forum at the Lunar and Planetary Sciences Conference (LPSC) Monday night in The Woodlands, Texas. Grunsfeld, who took the job after the FY2013 budget decisions had been made, said that the cut was not intended to be “punitive” for overruns on missions like the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) or the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). “It really comes down to a lot of tough trades,” he explained. With MSL on its way, he said, administration officials decided “planetary would have, I think the words I’ve heard are, a ‘paced development.’”
Grunsfeld acknowledged that the decision to withdraw from the joint ExoMars program with ESA was a “huge disappointment”, but he was hopeful that there will be a way to restore some kind of Mars mission for NASA by the 2018 launch opportunity. A planning group led by Orlando Figueroa to examine potential long-term exploration architectures is ramping up its work. A website for the group will be up soon, he said, along with town hall meetings, with a goal of completing its study by late summer.
Many in the audience at the event, which was also webcast, wanted more information on why planetary got cut. Some wondered if planetary was, in effect, being raided to pay for JWST. “As far as I know, there were no specific trades between programs,” Grunsfeld said. JWST is funded in the budget proposal for FY13 and later years at the levels needed to support a 2018 launch, reflecting its status as an agency priority, “and other programs were adjusted up and down to maintain a flat topline.” He cautioned against infighting within the scientific community over funding. “We will all lose,” he said, if that were to happen. “There is no doubt about that.”
During the Q&A period, Jim Bell, president of the Planetary Society, gave an extended and impassioned plea for Grunsfeld and Jim Green, the head of NASA’s planetary science division, to fight the proposed cuts—even if it cost them their jobs. “What we’re asking you to do is what we are all doing, and that is to fight back,” Bell said. “And even if you lose your jobs over opposition to this misplaced budget agenda, it would have been the right thing to do.” That line generated a mixture of laughter and applause from the audience.
Grunsfeld recalled that he was in a similar position before, working at NASA Headquarters as chief scientist in January 2004, when the agency decided to cancel the final planned servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. “I had a really tough night,” he said after hearing the news, trying to decide whether he should resign in protest. He said he talked with astronomer John Bahcall, who told him he would have the support of the astronomy community if he left, but if he did that, “there will be nobody inside of NASA to help to save Hubble.” Grunsfeld stayed, and, of course, that servicing mission was ultimately restored and flown.
At a “community forum” the next day at LPSC, also webcast, members of the planetary science community tried to rally their forces to fight the proposed budget cut. “One of the reasons that planetary got whacked” in the budget proposal, said author Andrew Chaikin, who moderated the session, “is because the planetary community is perceived in certain powerful circles as being weak. We have to have to come together and show that we are not weak.”
That coming together process, though, appeared to be very much a work in progress at the forum, as representatives of several professional organizations talked about their planned outreach efforts, ranging from informing their members to organizing visits to Capitol Hill. “I want to stress the crucial importance of responding as a united community,” said planetary scientist Steve Squyres, who chaired the most recent planetary sciences decadal survey. “And I do not mean as a community of Mars fans and a community of Europa fans. I don’t even mean responding as a community of planetary scientists. I mean responding as a community of space scientists.”
Squyres warned that, as bad as these cuts are for the planetary science community, it could get worse. He said he has talked with “various decisionmakers” in Washington who “are looking for ways to cut even further” in budgets. “What we must not do is give anybody a reason for cutting planetary even further. There’s going pressure to do that.” That, he argued, requires a united front by planetary scientists. “There is no surer way to give budgetcutters—and there’s lots of them out there—a reason to go after the planetary program than to project an appearance of disunity, disarray, disagreement as to what we should be doing. We must speak as one voice.”