An Open Letter to NASA

By Phil Plait | February 21, 2006 11:46 pm

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.

Sincerely,

Dr. Philip Plait
BadAstronomy.com 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.

Comments (42)

  1. beskeptigal

    One might want to remind Bush of this lie:

    http://www.whitehouse.gov/infocus/space/index.html

    “President Bush Announces New Vision for Space Exploration Program

    Fact sheetRenewed Spirit of Discovery

    Presidential Action

    * On January 14, 2004, President Bush announced a new vision for the Nation’s space exploration program. The President committed the United States to a long-term human and robotic program to explore the solar system, starting with a return to the Moon that will ultimately enable future exploration of Mars and other destinations.
    * The President’s vision affirms our Nation’s commitment to manned space exploration. It gives NASA a new focus and clear objectives. It will be affordable and sustainable while maintaining the highest levels of safety.
    * The benefits of space technology are far-reaching and affect the lives of every American. Space exploration has yielded advances in communications, weather forecasting, electronics, and countless other fields. For example, image processing technologies used in lifesaving CAT Scanners and MRIs trace their origins to technologies engineered for use in space.”

    Seems nothing in his State of the Union speeches really has any meaning.

  2. Sure beats the heck out of the modified template variety I sent the other day, but I doubt my voice counts for much anyway.

  3. This kind of reminds me what was once said in a right wing newspaper, I believe in reference to teaching

    “The more they scream about the cutbacks, the more we realise we have not cut back enough”

    How about the quote from a while back, “Make them make bricks witout straw”

    My experience of submitting correspondence to government departments, is usually you get a courteously worded brush off, and then you letter is filed and forgotten and they carry on doing what they wanted to anyhue.

    stop the world I want to get off

  4. gopher65

    I don’t have a fax machine, and I don’t know anyone (or any business that I have contact with) that still uses them:P. Primative things. Why can’t they use email like everyone else? Ah well, maybe if I send it using snail mail….

  5. Tom

    I realize that this will be controversial, but here are a couple of items:

    1. The President’s original vision stated that while NASA would get a modest budget increase (it has, in times where other agencies haven’t), it would need to find additional funds within its own budget (it’s doing). Unexpected costs (which probably should be expected) are making the cuts deeper than anyone expected, but this is not some sort of “lie” coming to pass.

    2. It’s true that these cuts are devastating to programs that are structured to operate under current business practices, just as the SETI effort was devastated by its change in fortune a while back. I think some of the stronger missions with the more tenacious leaders may find alternate ways of getting the job done.

    Don’t get me wrong, I wish that NASA had the funding to do everything that it wanted to do. I also have no illusions about troubles within the Vision itself. Just remember that if NASA got all the funding it wants today, there would be complaints that it can’t do more.

  6. Tom

    Gopher65 – Post 9/11 snail mail takes much longer to reach any official office. Need to check for nasties like germs and such. Find a fax machine.

  7. You behind the times

    txt it

  8. BB

    Huzzah for democracy inaction!

  9. Luke

    gopher65: I agree with you about faxes, but I’ve heard that snail-mail takes a month while they check it for anthrax and other nastys, and email gets ignored.

  10. Damage to scientific objectives? Sounds like Administration policy to me.

  11. No One Of Consequence

    I disagree that it is too late to get letters to congress — You can write your representatives and senators directly.

    http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm
    http://www.house.gov/writerep/

    The religious groups are very good about using this avenue…

  12. writerdd

    >How about the quote from a while back, “Make them make bricks
    >witout straw”

    Hoohahohoha. BURN!

  13. Thanks for speaking out on this and urging others to do so as well. I think it is critical for all supporters of NASA science (both space science and Earth science), especially those of us who don’t work as scientists, to voice our very strong concerns about this.

    Outcries from the affected scientists themselves are expected. But outcries from the general public are likely to have a much stronger impact on our representatives.

  14. Chet

    I’m faxing my letter today! Also recommending public and private funding of NASA’s space exploration programs and a rewriting of the NASA Charter for this purpose.
    The Viking Fund group and my Space Exploration Fund were able to donate monies to NASA in 1980.
    Perhaps join the Planetary Society, the National Space Society, and other pro-space groups, too.

  15. Steiner

    Why can’t NASA share the costs of development for the Exploration Initiative with ESA, in return for some of the glory? CERN has shown that major engineering projects work well with international co-operation, and I believe NASA and ESA have a history of co-operation.

    I love the idea of going back to the Moon and on to Mars, but (as everyone here seems to agree) that cannot be at the expense of science. If Congress won’t supply additional funding, NASA will be forced to look elsewhere.

    I would suggest including more countries in an international effort to the Moon. However, I believe JAXA tend to prefer unmanned missions and sharing funding with China would be politically dangerous.

    Just my 2 cents. God knows NASA needs every cent it can get.

  16. beskeptigal

    Tom says:
    “Just remember that if NASA got all the funding it wants today, there would be complaints that it can’t do more.”

    Billions for war with questionable benefit; billions unaccounted for in that war, undoubtedly lost to the massive documented corruption and overpayments on no-bid contracts; millions or maybe even a few billion lost to the documented corruption just coming to light in our own government; billions for tax cuts to the top 2% wage earners that already enjoy logarithmic wage increases over the lower echelon workers….

    I guess it’s just a matter of priorities, eh?

  17. VonSkippy

    Sorry but I can’t agree (even though I’m a scientist myself). NASA is a boondoggle of astronomic proportions. It’s proven time and time again it has a ineffective management structure and style. Science (or total lack thereof) is the least of their (and mine) worries. Lip Service has been made several times about management changes, but nothing substantial has happened. NASA needs to do a total phoenix (burn to the ground and rebuild from scratch) or be replaced. Something that was a national icon in my childhood is now laughed at worldwide as being federal stooges and technical screwups. I for one expect much much more for my tax dollars.

  18. Rumour Mongerer

    ruidh says: “Damage to scientific objectives? Sounds like Administration policy to me.”

    Yep. With one go, Bush managed to give NASA an objective that completely crippled everything it was doing. Way to kick it to that evil science!

  19. Hawk

    NASA has a 10 year plan to hand off ISS, a 6 year plan to remove Space Shuttle, and has significantly reduced its (frankly legendary) inefficiencies. The federal hire and can’t -fire system led to entire departments being project dead-ends with 10′s and possibly 100′s of millions being wasted. And it only takes one shuttle failure to scatter most of a billion dollars out the window.

    I wish that the project that was finally funded had been the Jovian Mission. I had high hopes for nuclear reactors and high energy plasma propulsion in space. However, the lunar missions have significant importance. Human exploration is still severely limited. We need man-centuries in space before we can comfortably send people to the other planets.

    I hate delaying science more than the average guy, but NASA hasn’t got much of a following. Arguing for more funding is going on. But unless there is a higher blog turn out than I expect (feel free to prove me wrong), it won’t make much impression on Congress. NASA has a good program with sustainable growth and goals, and we came out of the latest budget better than we had hoped.

  20. Nigel Depledge

    Steiner, you said:
    “Why can’t NASA share the costs of development for the Exploration Initiative with ESA, in return for some of the glory? CERN has shown that major engineering projects work well with international co-operation, and I believe NASA and ESA have a history of co-operation.”

    Erm, well, yes. One word : Cassini. The mission was a NASA/ESA/ASI joint venture. Look here:

    http://www.esa.int/SPECIALS/Cassini-Huygens/index.html

    Also, you may not be aware of JET (Joint European Torus), the forerunner of ITER.

    And Concorde (Yay for European engineering!).

  21. Phobos

    VonSkippy says: “Something that was a national icon in my childhood is now laughed at worldwide as being federal stooges and technical screwups.”

    Perhaps I missed it, but it seems to me that NASA is still respected worldwide even though it has had some screwups. Its successes outweigh its failures.

    “I for one expect much much more for my tax dollars. ”

    Considering the small slice of the federal budget that NASA gets, I think the few dollars you spend are paid back manyfold in all their successful projects (Hubble, Cassini, Galileo, Mars missions, Earth science satellites, aeronautics research…). Granted, improvements can be made.

  22. Kevin from NYC

    This administration is not interested in science. It is interested in headlines and talking points. Science is hard! Just like math….yuck..

    Barbie

  23. P. Edward Murray

    What about canceling some of these “Tax cuts”?
    It’s pretty amazing how anyone expects to be able to do anything
    when we are constantly cutting taxes, spending Billions of dollars in
    Iraq, while not making sure revenue is coming in (ie..hate to say this but
    rasing taxes) and constantly making sure very wealthy Americans pay little tax.

    Doesn’t make sense, especially when you consider that the high rates of inflation and high interest rates of the mid 1970′s came as a direct result of LBJ’s spending on Guns & Butter but not raising taxes to offset the spending.

    Today we seem to be doing that with defecits.

    And you might say this President and This Congress, never met a defecit it didn’t like!

    Bad for everyone including worthwhile research including science!

    Kudos Phil, you deserve it ..more than most people do!

  24. P. Edward Murray

    Note to Gopher65,

    A heck of a lot of folks still use fax machines but don’t buy a Panasonic,
    as if you have a problem with it now, you won’t be calling the office in suburban Philly, you will be calling someone in Manila!

  25. beskeptigal

    So VonSkippy, can we put you down as not thinking much of Cassini, Spirit nor Opportunity? Or as just giving credit for those achievements to someone other than NASA? Maybe you just don’t think exploring other planets will have anything to offer in return?

    Shall we say you prefer direct results like thousands of FEMA trailers sitting idle on an airstrip where you can see them, or the obvious gains in security we will have from the Iraqi civil war we seem to have seen intensify today?

    Or perhaps you believe all government agencies are full of mismanagement and waste and think it should all be left up to private business like Enron and Tyco or perhaps you like the ‘skim it off the top’ style of Haliburton’s business model?

    How about we let private industry do all the research, keep the results to themselves, patent anything they find, and recoup all that R&D in the price of products they develop? Who knows? Maybe there’s some nice hair rinse that can be made in zero gravity. Society will surely benefit from such a product.

    Currently it’s the military industrial complex that has the benefit of a vast amount of our tax dollars. Perhaps the companies are run very efficiently, but the end results are products the world doesn’t need and a market generated for those products as they are produced.

    In light of the alternatives of where our taxes could be spent, or of who could be doing the science, I’ll vote for wasting a bit more at NASA, thank you.

  26. bestonnet

    It’s been speculated that the budget might be a ploy to kill off the Shuttle and US involvement in ISS earlier than planned without as many political problems (by getting those who otherwise would oppose cutting the shuttle to want it gone).

    See for instance http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/oped-06a.html

    If that’s true then I hope it doesn’t backfire.

  27. Melusine

    Bestskeptigal-

    Ditto. Ditto. Ditto.

    You’re my hero. ;-)

    Sticks, letters and emails DO help; I’ve written many and have gotten responses, so I know they are at least being looked at. It helps not to write a template letter, put a bit of “controlled passion” into it, and offer solutions instead of just complaining.

    Good letter, Phil.

  28. P. Edward Murray

    VonSkippy,

    I am sorry but I think quite a lot of us who grew up with the space program
    disagree vehemently with you.

    NASA, for all of it’s recent shortcomings (don’t get me started) still can get things accomplished.

    No one else has landed men on the moon and no one else has spacecraft so far out.

    As Phil said, just look at Spirit & Opportunity, roving their little hearts out after surpassing their 90 day life!

    America today has a lot of problems, we need at least one agency that still has a “Can Do” approach…

    If we don’t do it, other nations will and we can not afford to sit back, if we do, we lose one heck of a lot.

    You may think you can do without it, but we can’t!

  29. Although I basically agree with VonSkippy, Phobos and others do point out areas of NASA success. They should call attention to the fact that these concern primarily the unmanned projects.

    I think the shuttles, space stations, and the other very expensive and failure prone elements of the manned program are at least premature. The direct physical presence of the human organism in space is unnecessary for scientific advance at this time. There is no justification for the risk and expense, let alone the disturbing presence of human activity and life support, that goes along with what are essentially publicity stunts.

  30. Sometimes sci fi is no match for reality…did any of our ‘prescient authors’ predict this? I guess the idea wouldn’t have sold well…

  31. Dr. Phil,

    I do not understand your tendency to anger, perhaps it is due to your youth.

    I agree that there is a need to increase NASA funding if it is going to take on manned space exploration to the Moon and Mars. Small cuts (perhaps not in what can be achieved, but rather in the efficiency of acheiving them) to other programs may result. Drastic cuts would be a shame, but then many other industries besides NASA have had VERY drastic cuts over the years, and many of them are more crucial to our society than NASA.

    I teach astronomy, and have for over 30 years. The outpouring of new scientific result exceeds my time and ability to absorb them and put them into my courses. I do not thing there is a shortage of discoveries.

    Having said all that (as a counter to your anger), I will write to my senators, and tell them that it is time to increase NASA budget to allow for a safe and timely execution of the manned mission.

    Thanks for your efforts, Phil, and please keep a cool head. I think you may be more effective.
    DrJPH
    PS: Are you faculty, staff, post-doc or what at CSUS?

  32. P. Edward Murray

    David Ecklein,

    Think of it this way:

    When we are around 10 months or more (and I am thinking back to when my little 12 year old neice was this age) in our lives we learn to walk & talk. And even if we are not asking “what’s there?” we are exploring our own homes, we walk everywhere and we get into everything, much to our parents chagrin.

    And then we begin to talk and as my neice would come to my house, she would always say “backyard” and outside she would always ask “what’s that?”

    All of us, at this stage of our lives are curious and explore.

    It is a part of the human condition, a hallmark of our species.

    Scientists tell us that Millions of years ago, we left our ancestral home in Africa and spread out over the entire world.

    Why?

    To Explore, to hunt for a more hospitable environment, to hunt for food.

    Today, even as the entire world is explored, we still carry on our own personal exploration; we call it going on vacation.

    And apart from that, we Americans of course are not the only nation involved. Other nations are setting to explore what John F. Kennedy called
    “The ocean of Space”

    If we choose not to keep exploring, what will happen?

    Someone else will get there first and by doing so, create new technologies that will power their economies.

    They will make the new strides in society and they will “bring home the bacon”

    Not us.

    For today, exploration is not a luxury but a necessity.

  33. puddintain

    As a federal employee and skeptic, I find it hard to believe that NASA is going to bundle up letters protesting the president’s proposed budget and send them to Congress.

    First, federal agencies must be totally supportive of the president’s budget. The heads of those agencies serve at the president’s pleasure and obey his marching orders.

    Second, federal agencies are prohibited from lobbying Congress. Forwarding letters from concerned citizens is a pretty clear violation of lobbying restrictions.

    So, if you want to send letters protesting NASA budget cuts, send them to the members of the House and Senate that oversee NASA’s budget appropriation.

  34. P. Edward Murray

    Puddintain,

    NASA has always been a different kind of agency!

    And I am always skeptical of those who say “Don’t Try”

    Government employees, every single last one of them, are servants
    “Of the people” of the United States. It is therefore not only propler but
    required to tell them, including members of Congress and The President, how we feel.

    It doesn’t hurt to give them kudos when they are doing something right!

  35. P. Edward Murray:

    Where have you been? You write as though we had not gone into space.

    We are already there. We have just used stilts where our legs are weak.

    I suppose some politicians and poets will tell you we aren’t there until we have human corporal presence as visualized in early 20th century science fiction. But scientists know that the amount of information returned by the unmanned probes far exceeds that obtained by manned flights, and this will likely be the case in the foreseeable future. In fact, the most interesting data we have derived from the desultory manned missions has been mainly about the human body and its limitations when exposed to the rigors of even a protected spaceflight environment.

    You might look at the recent issue of Scientific American for a writeup on the cosmic ray problem facing interplanetary travelers, and some of the heroic (read “expensive”) measures proposed to solve it, still in conceptual stage. This is just one problem among many. You might also look at Bob Park’s book “VooDoo Science” [Oxford 2000], in which he makes a much stronger and more detailed case against manned space flight notions than I can make here. Dr. Park is head of the Washington DC branch of the American Physical Society, and a frequent debunker of romantic nonsense associated with space research. See: http://www.bobpark.org

    Let us celebrate the manned space flight pioneers and heroes of the 20th century by not adding any more dead ones in the 21st.

    Forcing the “man-in-space” issue now, as Bush and others want to do, will distract considerable energy, time, and money from projects with an enormous scientific and cultural payoff. They will also contribute to an ultimately damaging image of space progress tied to an outdated test pilot bravado atmosphere, when what we need is a generation or two of scientifically and technically proficient people committed to finish the unmanned projects we have undertaken and projected so far. There are storehouses of undigested data already, and more is on the way from projects already launched.

    Where our instruments are, there is humankind.

  36. Tom

    P. Edward Murray-

    Puddintain didn’t say “don’t try” he said “send your letters to the House and Senate” where they can make a difference.

    All of his information on civil servants lobbying and federal agencies supporting the President’s budget is correct. Letters complaining to NASA will have no impact.

  37. beskeptigal

    Melusine, you are too kind. Thanks, I appreciate the feedback. Plait, Randi and Shermer are my heroes. :D

    DrJPHauck wrote, “Drastic cuts would be a shame, but then many other industries besides NASA have had VERY drastic cuts over the years, and many of them are more crucial to our society than NASA.”

    Unlike private industry, NASA is not based on return for dollars spent. While every business is subject to belt tightening at times, there is a return on the dollar and profit margin by which to judge the need for “drastic cuts”. Were our government tightening the belt everywhere, your words would have more meaning. But our government is spending like there’s no tomorrow in areas where a select few are benefiting and strangling the budgets elsewhere.

    My personal opinion is that we should protest budget cuts in every area we as individuals believe are important. We have a voice. But it takes many of our voices to be heard above the many decibels wielded by the powerful. This is but one of many of the petitions to Congress I have written. I’m glad you also decided to write one as well.

  38. P. Edward Murray

    As I said before, if Americans choose to not keep up a manned prescence in space then some other nation will.

  39. P. Edward Murray

    David Ecklein,

    Of course we have been there for 48 years, instrumentally.
    Mercury,Gemini,Apollo,Skylab, Shuttle & I.S.S. at the moment.

    And yes, cosmic rays etc. do bother me too as well as radiation on Mars.

    And I still rail against those at NASA who screwed up on Challenger & Columbia, (may God bless the Challenger & Columbia 7 and their families!)

    Yes, there will always be accidents but there is a difference between pure
    carelessness and a regular accident.

    As I said, it is within our nature to explore and while there will always be a place for robotic spacecraft to pave the way and go where man cannot go to, Man will always want to go to.

    And, there is that age old dream of one day, leaving this lovely little planet and heading out to the Stars.

    Perhaps, it’s like the way we are all drawn to the Ocean, we are drawn to where we came from, The Oceans first but then The Stars because after all we are made up of ashes; the ashes of Stars.

  40. Peyton

    I think that a way maybe to stop an astroid is to build some rockets and make a giant bowl stong and big to be able to stand up to an astroid. from :P eyton Franklin Bettencourt

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