Last week, after astronomers announced the discovery of a fifth moon orbiting the dwarf planet Pluto in images from the Hubble Space Telescope, the web site The Capitol Column openly pondered the effect that discovery would have on the NASA budget: “It may have taken the discovery of a new moon to finally get members of Congress to reconsider major funding cuts in NASA’s budget,” the article’s lede claimed, adding that “the discovery may be enough to save the Hubble Space Telescope’s successor, the James Webb Telescope.” The un-bylined article offered no evidence that members of Congress were reconsidering NASA’s funding levels in the wake of this finding, and such a development does seem implausible.
While an additional moon orbiting Pluto might not do much for NASA or its science programs, a key NASA official said this week that another upcoming event may play a big role. Speaking at the “NASA Night” portion of the Lunar Science Forum being held this week at NASA’s Ames Research Center (and also webcast), Jim Green, the planetary sciences division director within NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, suggested the landing of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission on the night of August 5 could significantly affect the agency’s planetary sciences program and budget.
“It’s absolutely essential for everybody in this room to recognize that, whether you’ve been following this or not, this is going to have an enormous effect on you, personally,” he told a room filled primarily with lunar scientists. “Whether it’s successful or not successful, it will have an enormous effect on the planetary budget, and therefore, all of our careers.”
Green, confirming comments made Monday by MSL project officials at a NASA Headquarters press conference, said the spacecraft was doing well. “I think we have done everything humanly possible to give this mission the greatest chance of success,” he said. “The landing of MSL will be absolutely critical, and we really need to take note of what’s going to happen here.”
Green acknowledged that current “austere budget times” have adversely affected NASA’s planetary sciences program, forcing the agency to stretch out the time between calls for Discovery and New Frontiers missions. However, he said he remained committed to adhering to the overall framework for planetary exploration for the next decade outlined in the decadal survey released last year. “We cannot blink. The planetary decadal is a well-laid-out document,” he said, citing the “decision rules” in the report that specified what NASA should do if funding fell short of what was needed to carry out the missions prioritized in the study. “We can’t give that up. If we do, we will be lost, not for a few years, but for ten years.”
The coming years, he said, will see a closer relationship between the science and human spaceflight directorates of NASA in order to help support plans for future human missions to near Earth asteroids and Mars. “We always knew that science and human exploration would have to get closer together as exploration moves out form low Earth orbit,” he said. That’s already happening with cooperation on studies of future Mars missions in the 2018 and 2020 launch windows, replacing planned NASA contributions to ESA’s ExoMars missions. “And for Mars, we’re doing it sooner rather than later. As we look at potentially the next set of missions in the late decade, we will see, I believe, a lot closer tie with exploration.”
That changing relationship will impact some of the lunar scientists present, though. Green said that NASA is planning to “recharter” the NASA Lunar Science Institute, the Ames-based organization that supports several research teams on lunar science research and runs the Lunar Science Forum. The new organization will have a broader, more “flexible path” focus, that includes the Moon as well as Mars and asteroids.
While Green said the success (or failure) of MSL will have a major effect on the agency’s planetary science program, he said there was one other potential discovery that could have an even greater effect. “I want to be the director of the planetary science division when we find life beyond Earth,” he said to applause from the audience. “That indeed will change everything, I believe, in major ways about the importance of planetary science and maybe hasten the opportunities that are delineated in the decadal in many different ways, for which exploration of the Moon has got to be part of it, too.”