Astrobiology gets second wind.
NASA reversed two decisions in one day on 27 March, reinstating the Dawn asteroid mission cancelled earlier this month and restoring some funds cut from astrobiology research. Both announcements have left scientists happy but also puzzled by a seemingly erratic decision-making process at the space agency, where managers are struggling to pay for an ambitious slate of science missions with a shrinking budget.
The US$446-million Dawn mission is expected to launch in July 2007 to study the asteroids Vesta and Ceres. The mission had been scheduled to launch this June, but last autumn, NASA stopped work on the project, owing to technical problems and cost overruns.
Although an independent assessment team reported in January that there were no technical barriers to launch, NASA associate administrator Mary Cleave cancelled the mission on 2 March. Her decision angered space scientists in the United States and in Germany, which is contributing funds and expertise to the mission. Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where Dawn is managed, asked NASA headquarters for a review. A team headed by associate administrator Rex Geveden decided on 23 March that the technical and cost issues were sufficiently in hand to permit launch.
Scientists attending an astrobiology meeting from 26 to 30 March in Washington DC also heard of a reprieve, albeit a partial one. Carl Pilcher, NASA's senior scientist for astrobiology, had informed the community just last week that projected budget cuts of 50% meant that any grant proposals received in 2005 would be unlikely to be funded. He also said there would be no solicitation for proposals this year. At the Washington meeting, Pilcher said NASA headquarters has decided to restore enough money to award at least half the expected number of grants from 2005. Most astrobiologists at the meeting applauded the news, but vowed to keep lobbying for more money. “We can see this as the beginning of a negotiation,” says Baruch Blumberg, a Nobel laureate and former director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute.