In response to what he called "unacceptable" cuts to science programs in NASA's fiscal year 2007 budget, Republican Congressman John Culberson of Texas has taken up the cause of U.S. scientists and engineers outraged by the proposed reductions.
In a March 9 "urgent personal letter" to the scientific community, Culberson said he is adamant in restoring funding for such items as a mission to Europa and space science research within NASA. The proposed budget included $3 billion worth of cuts to NASA's space science missions, including the reduction of funding to astrobiology by 50 percent.
"Eliminating virtually all scientific research funded by NASA and canceling the Europa mission is completely unacceptable to me," Culberson explained in the letter.
Culberson has laid out a strategy to find federal dollars that can be pumped into NASA to fend off the proposed cuts, slow downs, deferrals, and outright cancellation of space science work. One source of funds he has identified is a surplus of money within the bureaucracy of Homeland Security.
By utilizing part of a surplus of Homeland Security funds, that money 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," Culberson explained in his letter.
"Time is short. It is urgent that your letters and phone calls go out right away," Culberson said in the communique.
Culberson said the NASA 2007 budget cancels missions like the Terrestrial Planet Finder, a long sought mission to Europa, while cutting astrobiology research--actions that "cannibalizes" NASA's scientific research.
In the astrobiology arena, NASA kicked off this new interdisciplinary field in the mid-1990s. Since then, it has rapidly become a driving science 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 certainly about money, observed Thomas Pierson, Chief Executive Officer of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California.
"NASA is not being given enough money to do all of its assigned tasks," Pierson told SPACE.com. As to why so large a cut, he added, from the community's perspective, "there is no justifiable reason."
But from a NASA point of view, the rationale was included in a March 13th "Dear Colleague" letter from NASA Associate Administrator for Science, Mary Cleave. In the letter, she provided an update on the activities of NASA's Science Mission Directorate.
Astrobiology research funding is reduced 50 percent in the President's Fiscal Year 2007 NASA budget "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 the 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," Lunine emphasized to SPACE.com.
Why cut astrobiology in this fiscal year, Lunine questioned. "And, more fundamentally, at my home institution the vast majority of prospective graduate students cite astrobiology as a key draw in choosing a graduate career in planetary science."
Lunine said that the astrobiology cut, if sustained, "will send a very negative message about space science careers to the talented students who are our future. Surely NASA doesn't want that?"
Permanent black eye
Pierson of the SETI Institute said that 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 ten 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 advised.
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."
- Letter to Scientific Community from Congressman John Culberson
- Europa Mission: Lost In NASA Budget
- NASA Seeks 30-Percent Increase for Exploration Program
- Commentary: Destroying Astrobiology Would be a 'Disaster'
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Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com'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 was 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.