The proposed reallocation of funds away from NASA's planetary exploration programs has led scientists to boldly go where they have never gone before: into the realm of bake sales, car washes, and even meteorite raffles to raise public awareness and support for these programs.
President Obama's proposed budget request for NASA in 2013, which is currently before Congress, includes a proposed cut of 21 percent to NASA's planetary science budget, and a devastating 38 percent cut to its Mars projects, even as NASA prepares for the landing of its most advanced Mars rover to date, the aptly named Curiosity, on August 5th.
The purpose of the fundraising projects was not actually to raise money, but to raise media awareness and to obtain signatures on letters asking members of Congress to reconsider the cuts to these projects.
AAAS member Alan Stern, Associate Vice President of Research and Development in the Space Science and Engineering Division at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, coordinated the nationwide Planetary Exploration Car Wash and Bake Sale as a volunteer activity. AAASMC spoke with Stern, asking him about the success of the efforts to raise awareness as well as the future of the planetary exploration program.
AAASMC: How successful were the bake sales, car washes, and other demonstrations this past weekend in calling attention to the proposed budget cuts to NASA's planetary science projects?
Alan Stern, Associate Vice President of Research and Development in the Space Science and Engineering Division at the Southwest Research Institute: Reports are still coming in from the many individual sites, but what we've seen so far is uniformly successful. Thousands of letters have been signed, and will be sent to Congress, asking Congress to repair the budget cuts to the planetary exploration program at NASA.
AAASMC: If funding is cut, what consequences and ramifications do you see down the road?
Stern: The planetary flight program is likely to be decimated by these kinds of cuts. From Mars, to the outer planets, to our ambitions for flagship missions, and even to the bread-and-butter planetary exploration flight program called Discovery; they're all injured by this, as are the grants programs that analyze data from those missions, as well as the ground-based studies—theory and modeling. So it's a pretty scary outlook if we don't get the problem solved.
AAASMC: With the end of the space shuttle program and proposed decrease in funds for planetary exploration, do you see the private sector as being helpful relative to science programs?
Stern: I do. I see the private sector as being potentially very helpful in lowering launch costs, for example with SpaceX; for giving us opportunities to do new lunar missions via Google Lunar X PRIZE efforts like Moon Express; and by giving us more opportunities to exploit the space station, and other commercial activities as well.
AAASMC: NASA has changed a great deal from the 1960s, when the U.S. raced to put a man on the moon, to where we are today. Where do you see NASA going in the next 10 or 20 years?
Stern: I would like to see NASA returning to the exploration of objects in deep space with humans, and continuing to excel at robotic planetary exploration, robotic astrophysics, and studies of the Earth, of course. I also expect NASA to focus more on the development of new space and aeronautics technology than they have in recent decades.
AAASMC: What are the benefits to us as a society, economically and otherwise, that are gained by continuing to fund planetary exploration?
Stern: The benefits are numerous. For one thing, we're a great society, and the discoveries and explorations that are made cement the United States in history as a great society. But moreover, planetary exploration is a soft power projection across the world: students, and adults for that matter, read textbooks about the discoveries and the missions in NASA's planetary exploration program and they know that it's the United States that accomplishes these things, so it's a wonderful—if you will—"brand" for the United States and our NASA to be leading in a highly visible scientific area like this.
It also means high tech jobs across the country—not just the researchers, but also all the engineers, which typically outnumber the researchers more than ten-to-one to build these spacecraft. And of course, there are the direct economic impacts wherever there are contractors, or NASA centers, and so on. So the benefits are many.