Angry Scientists Confront NASA Officials at Conference

HOUSTON, Texas - It was billed as an official NASA Headquarters briefing to space scientists-but turned into a powder-keg of emotion.

Frustrated researchers are demanding explanation as to projected NASA budget cuts, mission deferrals, and space agency decision-making that could derail solar system exploration plans.

The collision between scientists and top NASA officials took place March 13, here at the 37th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC), which began Monday and runs throughout the week.

Surgery, so to speak

On the hot seat was NASA Associate Administrator for Science, Mary Cleave. She advised a standing-room-only crowd of scientists that the NASA fiscal year budget for 2007 has been impacted by "budget liens in the shuttle program. And those liens needed to be covered."

Cleave said that there was no money left in aeronautics. "So we were the only ones left, so to speak." She emphasized that the pace of growth in space science has been reduced to cover the shuttle program.

"We're still going to grow compared to a lot of other agencies in the discretionary budget. We are extremely fortunate to still be growing," Cleave explained. "We're trying to build an executable program," she added, one that be accomplished on a schedule and given tight budget dollars. "We're going to have to do some surgery, so to speak."

Doing with less

Andrew Dantzler, director of NASA's solar system division in Washington, D.C., spotlighted the $1.8 billion budget number for solar system exploration in the newly issued space agency budget. That's a lot of money, he said, but he did note that past budget projections suggested a higher number.

"The fact is, it's sort of like stocks. At some point it doesn't triple every time," Dantzler said. "We had projected growth in the past. But this is more of a correction to that 45-degree-angle growth, if you will. It's a lot of money. If we use it correctly, if we use it smartly, we can do an awful lot."

Dantzler said that space scientists have been very successful in the past "with this amount, and less."

NASA: a 'science vacuum'

The response from space scientists attending the annual NASA briefing at LPSC was highly-charged. Several researchers characterized the budget reductions as the most serious threat to the space science community in a generation.

A concern-given that the NASA cuts are maintained-was the impact on the ability of researchers to "reduce" the science data gleaned from space missions, a process of sorting through data that's tagged as research and analysis. Other scientists told the NASA officials that the budget hits translate into letting go university talent-graduate and post-doctoral students.

One scientist characterized the NASA officials as sitting around a conference table at the top floor of NASA Headquarters in a "science vacuum," a comment that sparked applause from the audience.

"I don't understand why you're so angry," Cleave responded. "We come to work every day and we work hard. We really care about this program," she said.

The fury from the floor of the meeting was not kept within U.S. borders. Scientists from Europe also cautioned that the NASA budget is damaging international cooperation. Several projects, including the now-scuttled Dawn mission to asteroids, involve non-U.S. partners.

Train wrecks

One hot-button topic, for example, is a funding cut for a mission to Europa, a moon of Jupiter, with possible high value in term of exobiology. "The Europa line is gone because we don't have the money to do it now. We didn't say that we're never going to do it. It's just that we don't have it within this budget framework," Cleave responded.

"If you want to do Europa, the money is going to have to come from somewhere," Cleave said.

Cleave said that a new set of advisory subcommittees is being established at NASA. These new groups can help NASA discern what the proper budgetary mix should be, she said. "We may not have gotten this balance right. We're hearing we didn't get it right on R&A [research and analysis]. We will be talking to our science subcommittees," she explained.

Other scientists emphasized that there is no dialog between space researchers and space agency higher-ups to avoid the "train wrecks" apparent within the NASA fiscal year 2007 budget. "Perhaps these new NASA advisory groups may deal with that," William Bottke of the Southwest Research Institute, told

"We all know they've got budget problems," said Glenn MacPherson, curator at the Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. "But there has been no consultation with the science community. The science cuts hurt everyone in this room."

As the "NASA night" at LPSC closed, one researcher added: "I hope you sense the mood of the audience and reason with us."

"The mood is really very obvious. It's not hard to sense," Cleave said. "We all really care about this program. We all work as hard as we can to maintain it. We really do."

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.