Jim BellMay 10, 2009

Once a Decade

by Jim Bell

Jim BellJim Bell joined The Planetary Society's Board of Directors in 2005 and became President of the Board in 2008. A professor of astronomy at Cornell University, Bell is also the lead scientist for the Pancam color imaging systems on the Mars Exploration Rovers. Find out more about Jim

The U.S. Constitution mandated in 1787 that once every 10 years the government shall conduct a count of the "respective numbers" of people in the country. This census has evolved from the relatively straightforward head count of 1790 into a decadal snapshot or survey, if you will, of the population and demographics of Americans. We've got a new census coming up in 2010 -- people are getting excited about it.

Well, it turns out that astrophysicists have been doing something similar for some decades on their own, taking stock of their population and surveying their demographic for lots of useful information. This information, compiled by the National Academy of Sciences in what are called Decadal Surveys, goes on to influence policy and science decisions within the astrophysical community, as well as within federal agencies that fund astronomy (like NASA and NSF) for, well, ten years or so.

The planetary science community of astronomers have only just started conducting their own such decadal surveys, with the first one commissioned by NASA in 2001 and intended to cover the period from 2003-2013. The results of that survey, published in 2003 in a report led by planetary astronomer Michael Belton called New Frontiers in the Solar System was the result of careful deliberations by and broad community inputs from hundreds of planetary scientists, spanning the full range of solar system studies. The 2003 Planetary Decadal Survey has been a key driver in defining and prioritizing the most important scientific questions and laboratory, telescopic, and spacecraft studies being conducted throughout this first decade of 21st century space exploration.

A "Midterm Review" was performed last year, halfway through the decade, to grade NASA's solar system exploration program relative to the stated Survey goals and recommendations. That Midterm Review committee was led by Wes Huntress, former NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science, and a member and past President of the Board of Directors of The Planetary Society. Wes's committee graded NASA's progress at the halfway point and gave the agency a "B" overall. Progress was judged to be good, but could be better -- many of the specific recommendations of the 2003 Survey have not yet been implemented, and in some cases it's not clear that they could or would be by 2013. The committee noted an overall trend of the situation getting worse in solar system exploration relative to the Survey's goals.

NASA is having a challenging time responding to the recommendations of the Midterm Review, however, because of the many demands placed on the agency across the entire breadth of human, robotic, aeronautics, Earth science, and space science missions and research & analysis (R&A) programs within what have been very constrained budgets. Indeed, with the stagnating funding levels of the past few years (partly a result of the government operating on so-called Continuing Resolutions rather than real budgets), with large cuts to the popular and scientifically rewarding Mars program, and with highly-visible and publicly-embarrassing cost overruns in several large space mission projects, the Midterm Review's prediction of "getting worse" for the period from 2008-2013 is looking awfully prescient.

It is within this uncertain and turbulent atmosphere that the planetary science community is now gearing up to start our second Decadal Survey, intended to cover the period from 2013-2023. This time the survey committee will be led by my Cornell colleague Steve Squyres, an accomplished planetary scientist with roots and street cred in both inner solar system and outer solar system research. The task faced by Steve's committee is daunting. For example, there are high-priority goals from the previous survey that have still not been met -- does that "automatically" make them high priority goals in the next survey? Can the committee help to restore the public's (and Congress's) confidence in our ability to estimate the likely costs of new missions, so that massive over-runs like those seen in the Mars Science Laboratory and James Webb Space Telescope programs don't ever again wreak the kind of budgetary, programmatic, and morale havoc that we're seeing propagate through the system today? Can we convince NASA to maintain stable R&A budgets (often called the "seed corn" which enables future missions and discoveries) in the face of such intense budgetary pressures? These are tough issues, but from working with him on the Mars Exploration Rover project I swear that Steve thrives on the sheer rush of overcoming crises and tackling big, complex, systemic problems. I know he's going to do a great job in helping to define NASA's best path forward for solar system exploration.

You can bet that The Planetary Society is going to get involved in the new Decadal Survey process that is just beginning. We will be convening workshops and conducting studies that will enable our unique perspectives on space exploration to be submitted as input into the Decadal Survey process. We'll be looking carefully at and making recommendations about future plans for Mars exploration, for lunar exploration, for the study of the threat of impacts from near-Earth asteroids, for studies of exciting outer solar system destinations like Europa, Titan, and Enceladus, and many other topics. Planetary Society Members will have opportunities to participate in Town Hall meetings about NASA's solar system exploration priorities over the coming decade, and to provide inputs and feedback to Society officers, Board members, and scientists and policy makers who are shaping the future of planetary exploration. Participating in this kind of process is a great example of one of the ways that it pays to be a member of a like-minded Society like ours.

Finally, this new Decadal Survey of planetary science is being kicked off amidst what looks, tentatively, to be some potentially good budget news just announced for NASA over the next few years. While the details are still not fully available, it appears that NASA's budget will grow slightly rather than shrink, that support for planetary exploration will remain flat or grow slightly, and that the Obama Administration is committed to retiring the shuttle and engaging the nation in a forward-looking human exploration program beyond low Earth orbit, hopefully leading to the kinds of new human missions to places like near-Earth asteroids, the Moon, and ultimately Mars that the Society advocated in our recent "Beyond the Moon" roadmap study. This is potentially good news but we must remain diligent. For example, it's not clear that the recent cuts to the Mars program will be restored in this new budget plan. It's not clear that NASA will truly engage our international colleagues as full partners on big new space projects. And what will be the implications, in both the human and robotic science/exploration programs within NASA, of the new blue-ribbon panel's independent review of the Constellation program?

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that "'Tis pedantry to estimate nations by the census, or by square miles of land, or other than by their importance to the mind of the time." It may be similarly ostentatious to "estimate worlds" by a process like the Decadal Surveys. Nonetheless, I have to agree with Emerson: it is essential that all of us who are passionate about space exploration work hard to define what we all can agree is most important to the mind of our time.

The Time is Now.

As a Planetary Defender, you’re part of our mission to decrease the risk of Earth being hit by an asteroid or comet.

Donate Today