The NASA Budget released today shortchanges space science in order to fund 17 projected space shuttle flights. Despite recent spectacular results from NASA's science programs, this budget puts the brakes on their growth within the agency. It seriously damages the hugely productive and successful robotic exploration of our solar system and beyond.
According to this budget, flight projects that were already underway, such as the Space Interferometry Mission, will be delayed. Others, such as the Terrestrial Planet Finder and a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa, will be deferred indefinitely. Furthermore, the new budget slashes funding for the fundamental space science that makes such missions possible and turns raw data into discoveries.
"Using money intended for science programs to fund continued operation of the shuttle is a serious setback to the U.S. space program," said Planetary Society President, Wesley T. Huntress, Jr. "NASA is essentially transferring funds from a popular and highly productive program into one scheduled for termination."
The Planetary Society Board of Directors points out that the very first goal stated in the original Vision for Space Exploration announced by President Bush was to "implement a sustained and affordable human and robotic program to explore the solar system and beyond." The Vision then went on to state that NASA would "conduct robotic exploration across the solar system for scientific purposes and to support human exploration. In particular, explore Jupiter's moons, asteroids, and other bodies to search for evidence of life, to understand the history of the solar system, and to search for resources."
"Instead," said Society Executive Director Louis Friedman, "NASA's robotic exploration program is being flat-lined, setting aside a mission to Europa to search for its ice-covered ocean and perhaps for life itself."
Both the National Academy of Sciences and internal NASA advisory committees have endorsed Europa exploration as the highest priority solar system objective after Mars. Last year, the U.S. Congress directed NASA to plan a fiscal year 2007 start on a Europa mission. If the proposed budget is adopted, that directive will be ignored, and no Europa mission will be planned.
The Society's disappointment with the NASA budget extends beyond the single item of omitting the Europa mission. Other major problems are:
Delay of the Space Interferometry Mission - a key effort contributing to the understanding of the universe and the search for other planetary systems;
Cancellation of the long-sought Terrestrial Planet Finder, a mission also supported in the original Vision for Space Exploration, to discover Earth-like planets and possible abodes for life around other stars;
Previously announced cancellation of the liquid oxygen/methane engine in the new exploration transportation system. The methane system was designed to test how a Mars ascent vehicle might be fueled on Mars, using in-situ resources. The proposed budget continues to downplay Mars as a goal for human exploration.
Society Vice-President Bill Nye stated, "After reaching the Moon, we kept on building big engineering projects for humans in space with the shuttle and space station. We got bogged down in Earth orbit; our exploration got stalled." Nye added that the Society strongly supports human exploration driven by science as defined in the Vision, stating, "To justify the cost and risk of human space flight, we need to be exploring other worlds and searching for extraterrestrial life."
Full funding of the shuttle was the result of political pressure from Congressional representatives from areas with vested interests in shuttle work, as well as international pressure from partners focused on completing the space station.
Friedman questioned the realism of the shuttle's even being able to do 17 more flights in any reasonable time period (before 2010) and said, "Investing in the shuttle is an investment in the past. NASA should be investing in the future."