It was entirely predictable. Due to the misguided and underfunded priorities of the Bush administration, far more science at NASA is being cut than just the critical Earth science missions that I've written about twice recently. As physicist Bob Park put it last week, in typical acerbic fashion:
NASA: GRIFFIN SAYS WE CAN'T DO EVERYTHING, AND HE'LL PROVE IT. The good news is that NASA is working on a shuttle mission to fix Hubble. Then we finish the space station and build a replacement for the shuttle. And then - oops, that's it. We're out of money. We can keep an astronaut or two going in circles until we're ready to go back to the Moon, though I can't remember why it is we want to go back there. It means we'll have to give up the Space Interferometry and Terrestrial Planet Finder missions, the top missions looking for signs of extra-solar life.
Park is referring to comments that the new NASA administrator, Michael Griffin made at a Senate subcommittee hearing on May 12:
NASA cannot do everything that we, and our many stakeholders, would like to accomplish. Several missions will have to be delayed, deferred, or cancelled in order to pay for the missions where the priorities were set by the President and Congress. We have tried to be sensitive to the priorities of the affected research communities, and have listened carefully to their input. For example, we seek to balance among planetary science, Earth science, solar physics, and astronomy within the overall science program by revisiting our Mars exploration program strategy and mission sequence. Deferring the Mars Science Lab to 2011 is an option in this reassessment. In order to service the Hubble Space Telescope and provide for a safe deorbit, NASA will need to defer work on even more advanced space telescopes like the Space Interferometry Mission (SIM) and Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF).
Thankfully, the next-generation Hubble Space Telescope, called the James Webb Space Telescope, and a robotic mission to Pluto appear to have escaped unscathed through this round of cuts. Given the recent trends, maybe next year will be their turn.
So, despite the Moon and Mars being top priority at NASA these days, even Mars science is at risk, as the uncertain fate of the Mars Science Laboratory (the 'next-generation rover') indicates. And as the fate of SIM and TPF indicate, non-Moon, non-Mars science appears to have little chance.
This is a shame. The Space Interferometry Mission (SIM PlanetQuest) is one of the most exciting and technologically challenging science projects undertaken by this country. A major part of its goal is to search for planets similar to Earth around nearby stars—planets capable of supporting life. Over the last decade, many dozens of planets have been discovered around nearby stars, but none of them are similar to Earth. The techniques available from ground-based instruments do not have the capability to find Earth-like planets in Earth-like orbits at the present time. They can only find extremely large planets, comparable to the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn in our solar system, or planets extremely close to their parent stars.
SIM PlanetQuest, in concert with the similarly-postponed Terrestrial Planet Finder mission, would, for the first time, bring Earth-like planets into the realm where we could discover and study them. That is certainly one of the most exciting areas of study in space science. We could finally start to answer questions such as 'How many other Earths are out there?'—questions that until now have been confined to the realm of speculation.
As exciting as the prospect of finally obtaining data concerning fundamental questions like that, and despite my astronomical background,I cannot get as worked up about deferring the SIM and TPF missions as I am about the cuts to NASA's Earth science programs. Given the direct relevance of the latter to improving the lives of us here on planet Earth, the importance of the Earth science missions cannot be underestimated. Especially given the impending threat of climate change and our current lack of sufficient detailed knowledge of Earth's climate system to fully understand the nature and consequences of the threat.
Even so, we will all be poorer for the decisions being made by Bush's NASA at this time. The prospect of sending a few humans back to a dull, lifeless world that we already visited nearly four decades ago does not come close to comparing to what we will be missing out on as a result.
UPDATE: Due to cost overruns, the James Webb Space Telescope is not likely to escape unscathed after all.