An Open Letter to NASA

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Feb 21, 2006
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As I mentioned in a previous entry, NASA's fiscal year 2007 budget contains devastating cuts to science. The new Exploration Initiative (to go to the Moon and Mars) is going to cost a lot.

That money has to come from somewhere, and even though this vision was stoked by the President, he has not relegated any extra money for it. That money has to come from somewhere, and it certainly won't come from the Shuttle or the International Space Station (despite huge cost overruns, lengthy delays, and a lack of any clearly defined goal for either one). This means that the money will come from the science side of NASA, which will pay a dear price, a dear price indeed. Whole missions are being cancelled, and others are being delayed indefinitely or suffering crippling cuts.

Astronomers around the country have sent letters to Griffin, expressing their alarm in various degrees of emotional level. There are some templates for letters floating around, but I found they were not adequate for what I wanted to say. So I wrote my own, and faxed it to Dr. Griffin a few hours ago. As I understand it, letters sent by tonight will be gathered together and delivered to Congress, which will then have a couple of weeks to discuss the situation. I don't expect the House Science Committee members will actually read them (though a group of staffers might, and give synopses to the Congresscritters). It's likely they'll simply count them up to know how many astronomers are good and truly ticked off. Hint: I am one of them.

Below is my letter. After that, I have included links to what other astronomers are saying and doing.

February 21, 2006

Dr. Michael Griffin Administrator National Aeronautics and Space Administration 300 E ST, SW Washington, DC 20546

Dear Dr. Griffin:

When the NASA FY2007 budget was released, I was shocked to see the extraordinary damage being done to the science program.

NASA's major impact on the public consciousness is with both exploration and science, especially when they are combined. The Cassini mission, the Mars rovers, Hubble, Spitzer, New Horizons -- these have captured the imagination of people all over the country, and the world, and have inspired generations of students to look up and wonder.

Manned exploration is a part of this as well. The Apollo missions unified this country as no other space effort ever has. And in the space science community, you will not find a more vocal or enthusiastic promoter of our returning to the Moon than me. But this must not come at the cost of space science. I was deeply disturbed to see such devastating cuts, delays, and outright cancellations of space science missions in the FY2007 budget. The list of threatened missions is astonishing:

The WISE MIDEX mission is insufficiently funded, SOFIA is on hold, Dawn (postponed indefinitely) is sitting in a warehouse ready to fly, TPF is delayed, the Astrobiology Institute suffered an almost total slashing of their funds over the next two years, tremendous cuts were made to two Mars Scout missions, the Europa probe has been indefinitely delayed, and the SMEX NuSTAR was cancelled mere weeks from having the proposal completed; excised in word and deed from the budget.

Dr. Griffin, you were quoted as saying that delaying the Exploration program would be more devastating than delaying science. I strongly disagree: the delays in science will not be simple delays; scientists will have to find other programs on which to work in the meantime, and the missions will lose expertise quickly. This will lead almost certainly to further delays, cost overruns, and eventual cancellations.

The Explorer program was designed to provide rapid and frequent access to space, yet it has been four years since the last Announcement of Opportunity (which included the winning proposal for NuSTAR, now canceled), and while another AO is scheduled for next year, honestly even that looks doubtful. Given that so many excellent mission have been Explorers (including the fabulously successful Swift gamma-ray burst and the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe missions), and that the NRC Decadal Surveys have consistently and strongly emphasized the critical importance of the Explorer program to space science, these actions are short-sighted at best.

We all know the budget pressure NASA is under. You have to make very difficult budget decisions, but cutting science in such a devastating way cannot be the best of all possible worlds. A simple solution to all this is for NASA to ask for more money to support the Exploration Initiative; given that this push was mandated by the present Presidential Administration, that seems the most fitting way to proceed. Of course, it would be naive to assume that would be fruitful. Barring that, then, it would be rational to look at the Shuttle and ISS phase-out, and see if money could come from there. The funding needed for science is relatively small compared to what is needed for those.

The scientific community is reeling from what is being proposed by NASA. There simply must be another way to fund the Exploration initiative -- which I will remind you, I strongly support -- other than robbing Peter to pay Paul.

I urge you to support science: find a way to restore delayed or canceled missions, and enable a new generation of scientists to find their way to the stars.


Dr. Philip Plait and Sonoma State University

Cc: NASA Associate Administrator, Science Mission Directorate, Dr. Mary Cleave United States Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science House of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee on Science, State, Justice, Commerce United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation House of Representatives Committee on Science

Here is what other astronomers have said:

I think that if anyone else wants to write letters, it may be too late to get them to the HSC, but letters to NASA may still help. Just in case, use your own words, note mine! Also, you need to fax them. Address the letters as I did, to Mike Griffin, and fax one copy each to:

  1. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin: 202-358-2810
  2. Lewis-Burke Associates LLC: 202-289-7454
  3. NASA Associate Administrator, Science Mission Directorate, Mary Cleave: 202-358-4118

Like I said, it may be too late to get the letters to Congress, but I hope it's not too late for NASA, and it's once-great commitment to science.