In the weeks since the release of the President's FY 2013 Budget Request, ripples of a harsh reality have reverberated across the planetary science community: the proposed funding slash of more than 20% could threaten the future of NASA's planetary exploration program as we know it. Those of us just entering the field – born well after the glory days of Pioneer, Viking and Voyager – face an especially bleak future. NASA's program of flagship exploration missions, which sustained a full generation of planetary scientists and engineers before us, will be lost if these cuts become law. Mars exploration will be severely set back.
As my friend and colleague Matt Siegler wrote here two weeks ago, we saw this as an opportunity to gather young scientists and take action. We wrote letters to key Senators and Representatives, and drafted a petition, which was hand-signed by over 150 scientists at the LPSC meeting. We started a Facebook group, "Young Scientists for Planetary Exploration," which is open to all, and will serve as a sounding board and source for information on how to get involved. With four hundred members (and growing!) great things are bound to happen.
We should soon have a better idea of where this is all heading, but for now, we figure the worst thing we can do is nothing. There are many online resources available to anyone who wants to take action, including the Division of Planetary Sciences, American Geophysical Union, SETI Institute, and of course, the Planetary Society. A simple letter, fax, phone call, or just an email is progress in the right direction. The DPS has just called its members to action. We are arranging in-person visits to our local Congressional offices, as well as a group visit to Capitol Hill in May in conjunction with the DPS. Our members are busy writing editorials and popular articles on the importance of planetary science.
Exploring our solar system with robotic spacecraft is among the greatest achievements in human history. This peaceful and increasingly international enterprise has tangible economic benefits, and broad public support. Young scientists were invariably inspired at an early age by fantastic images beamed back by spacecraft visiting other worlds. As a nation, we would be foolish to throw away our unique talent and growing capability to explore the solar system. Future explorers and scientists around the world are counting on us.