There's quite a lot of 'buzz' around on the internet at the moment about NASA's 2007 budget submission. The summary being that NASA's budget will be increased by only 1% over 2006 levels for 2007, to $16.792 billion. As we all know, if we were offered a 1% payrise, taking account of inflation that's effectively a cut in funding.
Why is this of interest to us, here in the UK ? Well, not withstanding the excellent work being done by ESA (with a budget of only $3 billion), most of our space and astronomy news, pictures etc are provided by NASA missions. If funding is effectively cut, then something has to go.
It looks like what is going to be hit is so-called 'space science' missions. This means the planetary missions, space based observatories etc, that we spend so much of our time at CAS meetings discussing, and reading about in our monthly astronomy magazines. 'Real' scientists are up in arms about this announcement.
Think of; Cassini at Saturn, the Hubble Space Telescope, the Mars Rovers, New Horizons on it's way to Pluto, Stardust, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Spitzer Space Telescope, Mars Global Surveyor, Chandra Space Telescope Deep Impact . . . The list goes on, right to the ageing Pioneer and Voyager probes which are still sending back useful data from the very edges of our solar system.
Although existing missions will continue to be supported, NASA is effectively putting the brakes on proposed new missions such as Terrestrial Planet Finder and missions to Jupiter's moon Europa. Late last year NASA's Dawn mission to the two largest asteroids Ceres and Vesta was shelved due to budget constraints. These missions are the next generation of 'Hubbles' and 'Cassinis'
The money will be going to prop up the aging Space Shuttle program and allow NASA to meet its commitment to complete the International Space Station. The shuttle programme has been a mixed success since it was first developed. Ironically the shuttle's greatest success is arguably the Hubble Servicing Missions, particularly the first 'Hubble repair mission' which fixed the optics on HST to allow it to become the amazing science and publicity instrument it is now. The good news is that the budget allows for one more servicing mission
Also receiving more money is preparation for a return to the moon, announced by George Bush in 2004. I think we are all looking forward to a long overdue return to the moon, but do we really want to do it at the expense (and excitement) of real science, now ?
I'm sure that NASA and other space agencies will continue to send probes to Mars, to continue the search for life. But, in my opinion, there's a lot more the solar system exploration than Mars, and at some point the public are going to get bored of yet more detailed photographs of the red planet. What is going to inspire future generations of astronomers and space scientists if there are no Voyagers, Vikings, Gallileos and Cassinis whilst they are growing up ? And more to the point, what are we going to discuss at CAS meetings ?
For more on this story check out the following;
Stuart's Opinion at Cumbrian Sky
Planetary Society's blog
BBC News article
More on the budget at the February CAS Meeting. In the meantime, why not post your comments here ?