At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, Paul Backes… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)
At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, tucked into the hills above Los Angeles, these are heady days: The robot dubbed Curiosity is hurtling toward Mars and is expected to put scientists on their strongest footing yet to determine whether the Red Planet is or ever has been hospitable to life. More than 1,000 of JPL's scientists, engineers and technicians — a full fifth of the lab's workforce — have put in time on the mission.
But a dark development has tempered the euphoria.
President Obama's $17.7-billion budget request for NASA for the 2013 fiscal year includes a $300-million cut to planetary science, the very work JPL specializes in.
That could mean a 20% reduction in NASA's planetary science budget and, at JPL, job losses in the hundreds. What's more, say proponents of robotic space exploration, the cuts would imperil the search for extraterrestrial life, one of the most vexing and enchanting questions faced by science, at the very moment answers seem tantalizingly near.
"We're on the verge of finding evidence of life as we know it," said Jim Bell, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University who has worked with JPL on Mars missions. "To pull back from that would be a real shame. It is nothing less than a shocking set of cuts."
Particularly during economic lulls, NASA has long favored astronauts over robots. Manned spaceflight is seen as having greater public allure and, consequently, is an easier political sell. These days, however, NASA's plans for human spaceflight are murky, critics contend.
With the Space Shuttle retired, many hopes rest on the proposed Space Launch System — a megarocket that could require $40 billion and 10 years before it's ready to take anyone up. Even then, no one agrees on where it might be headed, or what its astronauts might learn.
Robotic space exploration, on the other hand, has quietly entered a gilded age. Space telescopes are peering into distant pockets of the universe in search of planets like our own. A probe en route to Jupiter is searching for the recipe that created our solar system. And JPL's Mars missions — which arguably have captivated the public more than any manned mission in recent memory — have become perhaps the brightest jewel in NASA's crown.
"In terms of damage to the effort to search for life in the universe, it's enormous," Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, a nonprofit group that urges the exploration and settlement of the planet, said of the proposed budget cut.
The White House did not make the cut unilaterally. Beth Robinson, NASA's chief financial officer, called the decision a "joint enterprise" between the White House, the Office of Management and Budget, and NASA.
Although that may not be a source of comfort at JPL, NASA officials insist that the government is not moving away from robotic planetary exploration but merely recalibrating expectations in a time of austerity. That is particularly true of Mars, said former astronaut John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.
NASA is studying how best to examine Mars down the road, with an eye toward sending astronauts there in 2030 — with the assistance, potentially, of the SLS megarocket. Grunsfeld likened the situation to a family planning a vacation in Fiji, then realizing that on a tight budget, a trip to Baja might be more realistic.
"NASA is not backing off from Mars exploration," he said. "We're pacing our Mars exploration."
But the planned cuts are already having a significant effect, even before Congress takes up the budget.
JPL officials say the $300-million cut eliminates the possibility of pursuing new, high-level planetary missions, such as the Voyager and Cassini explorations, that have kept NASA at the forefront of space exploration.
With the release of the budget, the United States has pulled out of two long-awaited partnerships with the European Space Agency to conduct additional exploration of Mars in 2016 and 2018.
Those missions were considered significant because they represented the next major step in Mars exploration: figuring out how to bring home soil samples, which many scientists believe is the only way to determine once and for all whether Mars is or was hospitable to life. One JPL official questioned how NASA plans to send an astronaut to Mars in 20 years when it has yet to figure out how to bring back a rock.
The budget also does not include funding for a proposed mission to the Jupiter moon of Europa, which scientists are eager to explore because of suggestions that it contains an underground ocean.
And, in a final affront to backers of planetary exploration, funding for the Kepler space telescope will end later this year if it doesn't win an extension. Kepler is searching for Earth-like planets that orbit in what is known as the "habitable zone" — the appropriate distance from their star to host life, in theory.