After the NASA rover Curiosity made its flawless landing on the Red Planet last weekend, scientists cheered and raised their hands in delirious triumph. It was a spontaneous reaction of the sort we have witnessed dozens of times at Olympic venues, and appropriately so — America had won the science gold, again.
The complexity of the rover’s landing was a quantum technological leap beyond anything NASA has attempted in planetary exploration. After traveling 354 million miles, the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity had to slow in just minutes from about 12,000 mph. It arrived at the thin Martian atmosphere with parachutes deployed, rockets firing and skycrane unwinding. Then it settled down at the foot of a mountain. Plenty could have gone wrong. It is hardly exaggeration to say that the future of the Mars program was riding on Curiosity’s one-ton payload.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, the Mars program — the crown jewel of NASA’s incredibly successful and popular planetary science program — is trying to fend off devastating attacks on its budget.
Initially, the first two of these missions — scheduled for 2016 and 2018 — were to be undertaken in conjunction with the European Space Agency. But NASA canceled these missions this year, and the United States has backed out of its partnership with the Europeans. Adding to the misery, President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget proposed cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from the Mars Exploration Program.
One might imagine that these cuts are the result of a dramatically smaller NASA budget, perhaps as part of necessary deficit reduction. But the NASA budget, to the president’s credit in these tough economic times, remains essentially flat. These cuts are directed specifically and disproportionately at planetary science and Mars in particular.
Why, exactly, is a mystery. It is certainly not a reflection of the performance of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, whose brilliant scientists have brought us a rapid succession of technological and scientific miracles including the rover Sojourner in 1997, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers in 2004, and now Curiosity. It is probably nothing more than this: Big, powerful industrial stakeholders clamored for NASA’s dollars and won out over a nerdy group of planetary scientists. NASA cut the Mars program because officials felt they could, expecting that Mars would disappear quietly into the night.
NASA was wrong. The pushback has been furious, and not just from the scientists who rate the Mars program as the nation’s top scientific endeavor. Every 10 years the National Academy of Sciences engages the scientific community to guide NASA’s priorities in a variety of areas. The most recent decadal survey found a Mars sample-return mission the No. 1 priority of those involved in planetary science, which makes the administration’s attempts to cut the Mars budget even more inexplicable.
The public indignation at the savaging of the Mars program — outrage expressed by scientists, grassroots organizations such as the Planetary Society and individuals in calls, emails and visits to Congress, social-media campaigns, bake sales and even shoe shines to raise awareness — has prompted NASA officials to reconsider. We in Congress are doing our part: The House has moved to restore $88 million of the administration’s proposed cuts, and the Senate has moved to put back $100 million.
NASA has gone back to the drawing board. It plans to release this month its Mars Re-plan Study, which it ordered after canceling its partnership with the Europeans. Then, a lot more than Mars will be at stake.
Without the excitement generated by these missions, our ability to attract a new generation of American students to choose scientific and technical careers will be seriously undermined. Profoundly important research and development and all the economic benefits it brings will be forsaken. And America will step back from its place of preeminence in planetary science, with Russia, China and Europe leading the new charge into space.
Last week, we won the gold. But where will we be in four years?
Adam Schiff, a Democratic representative from California’s 29th District, serves on the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on commerce, justice, science and related agencies.