Last month I sat down with my research staff--eight talented young scientists--and told them what the latest round of proposed cuts in space-science funding will do to their careers. It was a somber meeting.
On Dec. 2, President Reagan's science adviser, George Keyworth, indicated the administration plans to cut back NASA funding so severely that early in 1983 the United States will no longer have a Solar System Exploration Program. The public is most familiar with this program through such missions as Voyager I and II that passed the planets Jupiter and Saturn and are now en route to Uranus.
Under presidents Ford and Carter, space-science funding was curtailed, and this, coupled with inflation, removed all but the barest bones from the Solar System Exploration Program. The program cost $175 million for basic research in fiscal 1981--about 88 cents per person in the United States. NASA directed $9 million of that sum to the Planetary Materials Program, which supports all studies on meteorites, lunar samples, cosmic dust and even some terrestrial samples. What the present administrastion proposes would destroy even these bare bones.
Please understand that research money is not parceled out arbitrarily. Only the best science can be and is funded. Scientists in U.S. universities and research centers submit proposals describing their research and its significance to NASA. NASA in turn sends these proposals to experts for evaluation.
My research program passed all of these hurdles, and for the past few years my research group conducted research on meteorites and lunar samples for about $73,000 annually. What were these funds used for? They were used to pay salaries to those students I talked to; that is, for graduate students doing research for their PhD degrees, for co-workers who already have PhDs but want to learn new techniques and approaches, and for a small portion of my salary. These funds bought chemicals and equipment. In other words, the money was spent on Earth, in the United States.
What did these funds produce? They produced a lot of knowledge on the genesis and evolution of solid objects during formation of the solar system, on the behavior of matter at high temperatures and pressures, on the nature of the solid state and on the Antarctic; they could produce a lot more knowledge. I won't dwell on this because the absolute worth of knowledge is incalculable. I will point out, however, that these funds led to the discovery of two processes: a method for producing industrial diamonds artificially, which is being used in this country and abroad, and a technique for extracting elements from the earth or in space that ultimately may prove very useful.
Knowledge gained was taken to the classroom, where undergraduates learned that science can be understood and applied. Finally, the funds led to the production of about 10 students with PhD degrees. Today, most are working for such companies as IBM, Shell and Procter and Gamble, not in space research. These former students are using the knowledge and techniques they learned at Purdue to produce better solid-state devices, develop improved catalysts for chemical reactions and explore energy sources.
In anticipation of the administration's termination of Solar System Exploration, most research grants for fiscal 1982--my own included--have been cut severely. Some were terminated. All of these grants survived intense scrutiny and all were deemed to be very important scientifically. Officials in NASA and the National Science Foundation are trying desperately to keep as many productive groups as possible functioning at a "starvation level" this year in hope that public pressure will cause the administration to reconsider its decision to terminate Solar System Exploration.
If nothing is done now, solar-system exploration is dead in this country, at least for the next few decades. It will cost much more to resurrect this program later than to continue it now. Worse still, the United States will have handed over world leadership in space to others.