NASA Budget Grounds Space Probes

March 10th, 2011 at 8:00 am | 8 Comments |

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For decades, there was debate among space exploration proponents about the relative merits of manned versus unmanned missions. Enthusiasts of sending astronauts argued that manned missions captured the public imagination in a way that robotic probes never could, besides serving the grand purpose of building a human future in space.

Space probe proponents, including many scientists, emphasized the lower costs and far greater scientific payoff of robotic missions. They also noted the daunting difficulty of sending humans to Mars, let alone to the outer solar system where probes already travel.

The debate is now effectively over, and both sides have lost. A cherished notion long held by many probe advocates — that cutting back human space exploration would free up money for the robotic version — turns out to have little practical meaning.

NASA’s manned space program is under much-noted budget pressure. The space shuttle fleet is winding down to its final missions, plans for a human return to the moon have been scrapped and it is unclear what combination of governmental and private-sector activities will enable human access to orbit in the coming years, or how successful such efforts will be.

The robotic space program, meanwhile, also faces a future of fiscal squeezes, political uncertainty and diminished expectations. The Obama administration’s 2012 budget proposal foresees NASA’s annual planetary science funding dropping from its current $1.36 billion to less than $1.2 billion in 2016. The Obama 2011 budget had projected the figure to rise to $1.6 billion by 2016.

Congressional Republicans show little interest in defending robotic space exploration. Rather, their focus has been on cutting NASA’s budget overall (and, with particular zest, slashing Earth climate science) or, among NASA defenders (often based in states such as Texas and Florida with large NASA facilities), on preserving funding for manned space missions. Space probes don’t show up as vividly on the political radar.

The National Research Council, which advises the government on science policy, just released a report setting priorities in planetary exploration. The report raised the possibility that NASA may need to scrap one or both of its “flagship” missions: the Mars Astrobiology Explorer Cacher, (MAX-C), aimed at determining the Red Planet’s past or present suitability for life; and the Jupiter Europa Orbiter (JEO), focused on Jupiter’s moon Europa, which evidently has an ocean beneath its icy surface and thus too is a candidate for possible life.

Of course, times are tough all over and space probes cost money. Before taking the budget ax to robotic space exploration, though, consider how much it costs and what it achieves. Planetary science accounts for less than 10 percent of NASA’s budget, which in turn accounts for about 0.5 percent of the federal budget. For every $100 in federal spending, NASA gets about two quarters, and puts less than a nickel into space probes.

Until a few decades ago, humans knew little about the rest of the solar system. Now we have a wealth of data and images from Mercury to Neptune. The Voyager 1 probe, launched in 1977 for a tour of the outer planets, is still returning data from the edge of the solar system. Beginning with the Viking missions in 1976, we have been getting information directly from the surface of Mars, a place once relegated to science fiction. Probes have physically touched Jupiter’s atmosphere and Saturn’s moon Titan, among other celestial sites.

Gaining such knowledge and up-close pictures of our cosmic environs is unprecedented in history. Besides being enlightening, it provides practical benefits, such as technological advances (as when digital image processing for probes helped give rise to CAT scans) and insights into Earth science (as when Venus’ greenhouse effect raised questions about our own). Furthermore, robotic space probes are vital for building human capital. What kind of scientific and technological workforce would the U.S. have without the educational tools and interest in science generated by planetary exploration?

Don’t let space probes get crushed in Washington’s gravitational field.


Recent Posts by Kenneth Silber



8 Comments so far ↓

  • cdorsen

    Ah, the question arises again. Cut spending for present and past generations retirement comfort and cold-war military mentality, or invest in the future and our children? Old people vote en masse, our children and their futures cannot. That is why SS will not be cut and Germany will know that the US Military is their to stop the clear and present danger of a Russian invasion. Bye bye NASA.

  • Carney

    We spend a bit under $20 billion a year for NASA. Eliminating the space shuttle frees up funds for a proper manned program. The Mars Society’s “Mars Direct” plan permits a robust program of human exploration of Mars for $50 billion over a 10 year period, well within the NASA budget. It’s a practical, nuts-and-bolts plan that eschews distracting pet projects such as exotic propulsion and cleverly sidesteps obstacles. The previous NASA Administrator Mike Griffin was a former Mars Society board member, and helped NASA adopt Mars Direct in many of its essentials, but NOT the crucial element of a tight, short-term timeline (like JFK’s challenge to get to the Moon by the end of the 60s), which ensures that political momentum will not dissipate.

    For an excellent documentary on this, see here (part 1 of 5):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M3REZZWeWcU

    In the absence of such a tight deadline, and years more wasted messing with the useless shuttle and pointless station, the Obama Administration was able to come in, destroy the manned program, and replace it with nothing.

    http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/going-nowhere

  • Leo

    This is only a temporary setback. Once other nations begin humiliating the US by financing space probes and space science that the US can’t afford, the frenzy will start anew.

    • Nanotek

      I realize we stand in a different age but I just read Pres Kennedy’s speech about the US first going into space and it seems we’ve lost a special spirit.

      “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…” JFK Houston 1962

      people don’t talk like that any more

  • Churl

    Actually, NASA has enough to do to regulate the climate with Dr. James Hansen at the CO2 throttle.

  • rockstar

    Is weed legal yet?