Meanwhile, back on Earth, the Mars program — the crown jewel of NASA’s incredibly successful and popular planetary science program — is trying to fend off devastating attacks on its budget.
Building on generations of other orbiters and landers, Curiosity is designed to unlock the secrets of Mars’s geologic past and search for the building blocks of life. Its two-year mission was to be followed in short order by an orbiter and another trip to the Mars surface to gather promising soil and rock samples. Subsequent missions were to bring those samples back to Earth.
Initially, the first two of these missions — scheduled for 2016 and 2018 — were to be undertaken in conjunction with the European Space Agency. But NASA canceled these missions this year, and the United States has backed out of its partnership with the Europeans. Adding to the misery, President Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget proposed cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from the Mars Exploration Program. Simply put, the crown jewel of the U.S. planetary science program is hanging by a budgetary thread.
One might imagine that these cuts are the result of a dramatically smaller NASA budget, perhaps as part of necessary deficit reduction. But the NASA budget, to the president’s credit in these tough economic times, remains essentially flat. These cuts are directed specifically and disproportionately at planetary science and Mars in particular.
Why, exactly, is a mystery. It is certainly not a reflection of the performance of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, whose brilliant scientists have brought us a rapid succession of technological and scientific miracles including the rover Sojourner in 1997, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers in 2004, and now Curiosity. It is probably nothing more than this: Big, powerful industrial stakeholders clamored for NASA’s dollars and won out over a nerdy group of planetary scientists. NASA cut the Mars program because officials felt they could, expecting that Mars would disappear quietly into the night.
NASA was wrong. The pushback has been furious, and not just from the scientists who rate the Mars program as the nation’s top scientific endeavor. Every 10 years the National Academy of Sciences engages the scientific community to guide NASA’s priorities in a variety of areas. The most recent decadal survey found a Mars sample-return mission the No. 1 priority of those involved in planetary science, which makes the administration’s attempts to cut the Mars budget even more inexplicable.
Millions of Americans swarm to — and often nearly overwhelm — the NASA server every time there is a landing. They are curious about the discoveries made on these missions and the questions we are tantalizingly close to answering: Was there life elsewhere in our solar system? Is there still?
We have never brought back anything from the Red Planet, but a sample return would allow us to conduct sophisticated tests that are impossible to accomplish remotely. Bringing back such a sample would also be vital to developing the technologies necessary to bring our astronauts back from Mars. Once the scientists and engineers who have overcome the enormous challenges of landing on Mars — the most specialized workforce on Earth — are allowed to disperse, it may be decades before their knowledge base and skill sets can be reassembled.
The public indignation at the savaging of the Mars program — outrage expressed by scientists, grass-roots organizations such as the Planetary Society and individuals in calls, e-mails and visits to Congress; social-media campaigns; and bake sales and even shoe shines to raise awareness — has prompted NASA officials to reconsider. We in Congress are doing our part: The House has moved to restore $88 million of the administration’s proposed cuts, and the Senate has moved to put back $100 million. It is likely that even more of the funds will be restored in the final appropriations legislation. The success of the Curiosity landing will only intensify the pressure on NASA leaders to move forward and not rest on the laurels of a Mars program built up by others.
NASA has gone back to the drawing board. It plans to release this month its Mars Re-plan Study, which it ordered after canceling its partnership with the Europeans. Then, a lot more than Mars will be at stake.
Without the excitement generated by these missions, our ability to attract a new generation of American students to choose scientific and technical careers will be seriously undermined. Profoundly important research and development and all the economic benefits it brings will be forsaken. And America will step back from its place of preeminence in planetary science, with Russia, China and Europe leading the new charge into space.
Last week, we won the gold. But where will we be in four years?