May 26, 2003 

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Cosmic Cutbacks
September 27, 1999

While the American economy continues to rocket forward, the nation’s space agency is engaged in an uphill battle for funding. On September 10, the House of Representatives voted to trim NASA’s proposed $13.5 billion budget by $1 billion.

Gemini launch
image: NASA

While the Senate Appropriations Committee is moving to restore NASA funding , the space agency is still reeling from cuts amounting to a third of its budget over the last decade -- more than any other Federal agency. This is in marked contrast to another prosperous era -- the 1960s -- when America raced to the Moon.

There is a very, very bad situation here in terms of the budget and the cuts as a direct result of the fact that the Cold War is over,š explains William E. Burrows, a space historian who has been chronicling the space program for the past 30 years. „The competition is gone, the Russians have imploded, Mir is coming down soon and people are walking away from space, which is really unfortunate."

Choice Cuts

By NASA’s calculations, numerous upcoming planetary exploration and space science missions would have to be canceled as a result of the budget cuts. Likely candidates include:

  • The CONTOUR mission which will fly very close to three comets in an effort to learn more about them.
  • Missions to search for signs of life in the oceans of Jupiter’s moon Europa , to explore Pluto and the Kuiper asteroid belt at the edge of our solar system, and to study our Sun.
  • Discovery program missions, including Deep Impact -- which would fire a projectile into a comet, and Messenger -- a probe that will fly to Mercury.
  • The Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST) , which would study black holes and solar flares.
Earth from moon
image: NASA
image: Sandia National Labs

Many other planned missions, if not canceled, would be cut back, including future Mars exploration missions , and Earth science missions that aid weather predictions and monitor climate change. Among the potentially canceled missions are several designed to help us one day save our planet from a giant comet or asteroid.

Down the line, there is a large dirty rock out there that is looking for us, in effect,š warns Burrows. „If you really want to talk about priorities, the survival of the entire planet has got to be right at the top of the list.š Such scenarios have been recently dramatized in popular Hollywood films such as Deep Impact and Armageddon.

Giant Leap Backwards

Burrows says that while prior belt-tightening has streamlined the agency, it’s also holding back space exploration by restricting NASA’s reach. "There‚s no point in having shuttles going around and around and around, even to build the space station , which is going to go around and around and around," Burrows says. "Ultimately we‚re going to have to get out of here∑ in fact the moon is a space station∑ and if we had real guts as a society we‚d go back to it. But we don‚t. It‚s got to be done in increments."

Space exploration has many hidden benefits, Burrows says. It inevitably pushes the edges of new technologies, often in unexpected ways. While computers existed before the 1960‚s, the push for computational power during the Apollo missions resulted in incredible advances in computing that have changed the very face and force of our society.

image: NASA

But Burrows believes the best reasons are intangible. „You go to space because ultimately it‚s an adventure,š Burrows says. „We need adventure, we need excitement, we need to explore....We should want to go to Mars and beyond. It‚s in our fiber to want to do this and we should just go for it."

Elsewhere on the web:

The American Astronomical Society’s NASA Budget Page

The latest news from ranking Senate VA-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee member Barbara Mikulski (D-MD)’s office

NASA Watch (a sometimes inflammatory watchdog group not affiliated with NASA)’s daily updates

by STN2

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