HOUSTON, Texas - As an extraordinary amount of data streams in from a flotilla of spacecraft strewn across the solar system, scientists face tough times as NASA space science budgets undergo a major shakeout and shifting of priorities.
A milestone has been reached in robotic space exploration given the number of international spacecraft now en route or already on duty.
But despite the progress, bleak times ahead are being projected as NASA budgets swing to support human spaceflight initiatives.
The battle lines are being drawn at the 37th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC), which began Monday and held here throughout the week.
This year's LPSC will be the largest of these meetings to date, both in terms of abstracts of papers submitted and attendance, observed Stephen Mackwell, Director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) here that sponsors the LPSC along with NASA's Johnson Space Center. "This growth has occurred despite no real increase in funding for planetary science," he told SPACE.com.
Mackwell explained that there are some interesting trends in the demographics of this year's gathering:
-- There is a modest growth in student attendance, perhaps reflecting the greater number of students entering graduate degree programs in planetary science since the announcement by President Bush of a new vision for space exploration. The great success of current planetary missions, notably the Mars exploration rovers and Cassini at Saturn, has also generated great interest among young people.
-- The Vision focus on the Moon, Mars and beyond, and the desirability of on-the-spot use of resources, has generated broad interest from applied scientists and engineers -- both university and industry-- in joining lunar mission activities. The LPSC provides an opportunity for these groups to showcase their thoughts and technologies to the Moon and Mars science communities.
-- The tremendous success of current missions has generated huge enthusiasm for scientists and students to attend the LPSC, where much new data from both very recent and older missions will first be aired.
In terms of the hallway discussions, the 15-percent projected cuts in NASA research and analysis programs in 2007, and the slipped and cancelled robotic missions will certainly be major discussion points, Mackwell said.
"There is frustration that decisions are being made on canceling or delaying flight programs without consultation with the scientific community," Mackwell explained. "There is also a fear that the cuts in 2007 are only the beginning, and that further delays and cancellations may occur, as NASA redirects even more money to the human [spaceflight] program."
Clearly, Mackwell continued, "fundamental important science will go unfunded, and the glorious present era of exciting missions unraveling the secrets of the solar system will rapidly pass, as the current budget has room for fewer and fewer new missions as the years pass."
Diving into the fray is The Planetary Society - a public support group for space -- that has issued a "Take Action Alert" making its way through the LPSC. They warn of how science has been eviscerated in NASA's newly issued budget for 2007.
Although the fiscal year 2007 budget does not take effect before October 2006, and Congress has not even approved it, NASA has already begun canceling 2006 research projects and mission studies, including the mission to Europa. Even programs Congress has voted into law are being "delayed indefinitely", warns the message from the Planetary Society.
Done in by NASA's 2007 budget are such projects as the Terrestrial Planet Finder; Mars Scout missions after 2011; Mars Sample Return; and a Mars Telecommunications Orbiter.
"We are asking Congress to intervene and direct NASA not to cancel programs before the Congress has [the] chance to consider them," the Planetary Society alert explains. Furthermore, scaled back in funding is astrobiology research -- down 50 percent - and well as research and analysis dollars used to help decipher what space missions have found, the alert points out.
As for the future, the Planetary Society calls to question NASA plans over the next five years to cut $3 billion from science. "NASA officials admit that science is being forced to pay the bill to keep the space shuttle flying," with the Planetary Society's alert urging space scientists to help "reverse these short-sighted" decisions.
Shooting inward or outward?
A brisk walk through the LPSC gathering -- sandwiched between the sharing of surprising new data from Stardust, Cassini at Saturn information, impact cratering on Mars, or other mission data sets - talk of shortfalls of funding is evident.
"Clearly this will be the principal hall-talk issue...how to present a unified front on the budget, and how to best influence the process," said Robert Pappalardo, an assistant professor in the Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences Department at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
"If the community circles the wagons at LPSC it had better figure out which way to shoot... this past couple of weeks has proved that inwards doesn't work," advised Jonathan Lunine, Professor of Planetary Sciences and of Physics at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Lunine told SPACE.com he hoped that most attending LPSC will focus on the remarkable multi-instrument results from Cassini on Enceladus; the newest evidence from Spirit and Opportunity that water once existed at both sites; as well as the successful insertion into orbit around the red planet of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
As part of this week's LPSC, Lunine added, he will give a special lecture on what to do next in the outer solar system, starting with a clean sheet of paper.
Welcome to the roller coaster
NASA's delay in starting a mission to the outer planets is a major blow, said Fran Bagenal, Professor of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado's Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder. She chairs NASA's Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG).
"The Europa community isn't giving up, quite rightly," Bagenal said in an earlier, pre-LPSC interview. "They are harnessing their energies to clearly articulate exactly what is being talked about in terms of the Europa mission."
As chair of OPAG, Bagenal said it's time for the community to get its ducks in a row. "We need to get our creative juices going...harness the new technologies...and fly them creatively to the outer solar system."
Be it Voyager, Galileo at Jupiter, Cassini at Saturn, as well as New Horizons now plowing it was to Pluto, the quest for "far out" missions has long been a story of struggle.
Outer planet exploration can be likened to a roller coaster ride, Bagenal told SPACE.com. "There are ups and downs...and we're going on a down right now...there's no question. It's a bummer."
Bagenal said the task ahead now is getting everything in order and having the community ready for the next roller coaster boost. NASA is fully aware, she said, that robotic science missions keep the space agency on the front page and the public keenly interested in space exploration.
"But it is indeed frustrating for those of us who want to have flagship missions," Bagenal added. "If you stop making the case you are guaranteed not to get another mission."