Exploration first

    The proposed NASA budget promotes space exploration over science, and planetary science over astrophysics. This decision has the potential to cause strife between scientists, who have to work together to find a solution.

    The history of space exploration is dotted with symbols — Sputnik, the Blue Marble, the Apollo Moon landings — which in turn affect space policy. We might just have witnessed an unintentional pairing last February, with the combination of two events in short succession: a private entrepreneur sending a car into space followed, less than one week later, by the presentation of President Trump’s proposed NASA budget for fiscal year 2019 (FY2019). That budget encourages commercial companies to develop low-Earth-orbit initiatives at the expense of maintaining the International Space Station and kills the next big space telescope, WFIRST (Wide-Field InfraRed Survey Telescope). The narrative of NASA giving up its role as a leader in science and relying on the private sector for space exploration is basically writing itself.

    But how close does this scenario correspond to reality? And is it a real landmark moment or just a bump in the road? NASA’s history is rife with cancellations, course corrections and false steps. Many people remember (not so fondly) the “faster, better, cheaper” mantra of the 1990s and early 2000s (also because it actually meant just “cheaper”), but NASA recovered brilliantly and we can argue that its leading position was never under threat. The FY2019 budget, however, reflects the political desire to reassess NASA’s mission, which can be roughly summarized as a shift from ‘pure’ science to human exploration with a strong and ‘institutionalized’ role for the private sector.

    Nor is the budget a mere tweaking of numbers. Many sections have been restructured, merged or renamed: 'Space Operations' is now focused only on low-Earth-orbit developments together with commercial partners. In another example of symbolism, for the first time science is listed below the exploration entries, whereas it used to be first. As for education, it gets exactly $0. Hopefully, the reality will probably be very different after the changes that Congress will impose (in the case of FY2018, both astrophysics and planetary science fared better in the final bill, just approved as we go to press), but the political will behind the budget could survive and its implications may have significant global effects in the medium- and possibly long-term.

    Before sounding the alarm, we should ask ourselves if it is really necessary to pay much attention to what NASA does these days. After all, there are several space agencies with healthy space programs, with new nations like China and India joining the traditional actors like ESA or JAXA (Japan). The affirmative answer rests on sheer numbers: US$19.6 billion, far above the second in the list (ESA; $6.27 billion) and almost equal to the sum of the first seven space agencies after it. Most NASA projects and instruments produce plenty of collaborations and papers all around the world, so any major shift at NASA will be felt globally.

    Among the various proposed measures, the cancellation of WFIRST is the one that attracted the most attention, mostly because it was unexpected. WFIRST has had its share of problems — exemplified by an independent review published in October 2017 asking for a 'downscoping' of the telescope — but cancellation had never been on the table. Most interesting is the reason given for this decision: not the simple elimination of an over-budgeted project, but a redistribution of resources to human exploration from other entries, like Earth science and, precisely, WFIRST. The cancellation is the practical translation of the symbolism expressed above: dark matter and exoplanets (the focus of WFIRST science) traded in exchange for a push in exploration. In a sense, this is a remarkable exercise in awareness on NASA’s part, as it implicitly admits that the current Moon and Mars ambitions, indicated by Trump’s Space Policy Directive 1, are untenable at the current level of funding, and Apollo-sized budgets (5% of the federal budget) are not to be expected in the future. However, the proposed solution opens a series of cans of worms that could have been avoided.

    The first can concerns the Decadal Survey. WFIRST was the top priority of the 2010 Decadal Survey for astronomy, and many people already have remarked that, if the priorities set by what is considered the roadmap of US astronomy can be overturned by short-term politics, it would strongly weaken the whole decadal process. Fortunately, the finalized FY2018 bill explicitly supports the decadal process. But if left unchecked in FY2019, this shift could even have an impact on the decadal surveys of other disciplines, such as planetary or Earth science. Without the faith of the community in a shared organized project with a clear roadmap, there is a risk of fragmentation of efforts and thus less efficiency and less progress, and the possibly of more infighting between the various fields of astronomy.

    Secondly, the opposition between astrophysics and human exploration has the potential to spill over into the respective scientific communities. This tension is not just exclusive to the US. The freshly published Canadian budget for science is an example in the opposite direction: science, and particularly basic science research, received a big boost, but the space community expressed its disappointment due to the lack of global strategy and ambition. In the case of the US, the shift in scope has been translated into a substantial difference in money between the two fields. This imbalance is clearly seen by comparing the last Obama proposed budget (FY2017) to the present one. In FY2017, planetary science was projected at ~$1.5 billion and astrophysics (including JWST funding, which was a distinct entry at the time and has now — tellingly — been combined) at $1.35 billion. In FY2019, planetary science is given a whopping $2.2 billion, with astrophysics decreasing to $1.18 billion. Could the competition for resources engender attrition, with a generally satisfied planetary side worried about losing its advantage and an increasingly frustrated astrophysical side left with the feeling that they are losing exciting science in exchange for a bunch of rocks from Mars?

    Ultimately, the answer should come from basic principles. As researchers, planetary scientists and astrophysicists have the progress of humankind and the advancement of our knowledge of the Universe as their ultimate goals. Both space exploration and astronomical science are needed to reach these goals. It is difficult to stick to principles when jobs, funding and the fate of whole teams can be on the line, but it should be our duty to always demand a fair distribution of resources, otherwise we could both fall when the political winds change again.

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    Exploration first. Nat Astron 2, 263 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41550-018-0451-y

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