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US space scientists rage over axed projects

Critics say proposed cuts will devastate the field.

Proposed cuts to NASA's science budget have unleashed a storm of anger from US astronomers and planetary researchers, who say the reductions would cause irreparable harm and drive young people from the field.

Under a NASA budget unveiled on 6 February (see Nature 439, 644; 2006), growth in science spending between 2007 and 2010 would be slashed by 17%. The budget proposed by President George W. Bush has yet to be approved by Congress, but many planned projects — from planet searches to a Mars sample return, as well as scores of individual research grants — are likely to be scrapped (see ‘Some cuts proposed at NASA’).

Table 1 Some cuts proposed at NASA

Planetary scientist Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution of Washington says the cuts would devastate US space science — just as physics was jolted when the Superconducting Super Collider was cancelled in 1993, after $2 billion had been spent on it. “High energy physics never quite recovered from that.”

Scientists appreciate that NASA's administrator, Mike Griffin, is struggling to balance his books. Griffin explained during the budget press conference that the science cuts were necessary to pay for shuttle flights required to complete the International Space Station. “It's what we needed to do,” he said regretfully.

After budget cuts, this picture of a mission to find earth-like planets is unlikely to become a reality. Credit: NASA/JPL-CALTECH

But Jonathan Lunine, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona, Tucson, sums up the view of many when he says he finds it “puzzling and frustrating” that NASA would divert money from science, widely considered its most productive enterprise, to keep the aged space shuttles flying. “It seems that NASA is trying to capitalize on its failures rather than its successes,” says Lunine.

Particularly hard hit is the search for new planets, a field that appeals to young scientists, says Charles Beichman of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. NASA could keep developing technologies for the Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) mission given just $10 million next year, he says. Instead, the TPF's budget will be wiped out. NASA claims the mission is “deferred indefinitely”, says Beichman. “The fact is, they are cancelling the TPF. They are breaking up the technology team.”

There is fury not just at the size of the cuts, but at how they were decided and announced to the science community. Heidi Hammel, a planetary researcher with the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, says that NASA's advisory council was not operating during much of last year and so “there was absolutely no way to know how these decisions had been made. It's sort of like a black hole over there.”

The lack of communication extended even to projects that were being axed. For example, the California Institute of Technology's Fiona Harrison had an Explorer mission that was about to enter its development phase after two years of work. But in what Beichman calls an “egregious breakdown of the process”, she learned during the press conference that her NuSTAR X-ray astronomy satellite had actually been cancelled.

Harrison estimates that about 200 scientists are planning to send petitions or protest letters to NASA. Craig Wheeler, president-elect of the American Astronomical Society, says the society will argue that NASA's science projects should share in the generous increases granted to other research agencies for 2007.

But many space scientists are still just trying to figure out what it all means — and they believe the draconian cuts won't even fix NASA's larger budget problems. Gregory Junemann is president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, NASA's largest union. “Devouring everything else at the agency, while holding out for some future financial miracle, is irresponsible,” he says

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Reichhardt, T. US space scientists rage over axed projects. Nature 439, 768 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/439768a

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