Major scientific organizations say next year's proposed budget for the U.S. space agency NASA contains cuts that threaten the agency's research mission. The Planetary Society, a private space support group, is one of the organizations that is mobilizing to protest the cuts.
Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, says the proposed NASA budget for the coming fiscal year would cut 15 percent in basic research and 50 percent in funding for astrobiology, the search for life beyond our planet.
A number of unmanned planetary missions would be deferred or eliminated, including one to Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter. Scientists view it as a prime candidate for harboring signs of life. The Terrestrial Planet Finder mission, to search for other earthlike worlds, and a Mars Sample Return Mission would also be cut. That, says Mr. Friedman, would be an abandonment of NASA's mission of space discovery.
"It is essentially a redirection of what NASA has been doing over the last several years, away from the great missions of exploration that we have enjoyed, the Hubble [space telescope], the Mars Exploration Rovers, Deep Impact, Stardust. They have enthralled the public and also brought a rich amount of data for scientists," he said.
The Planetary Society is collecting petition signatures in a campaign called Save Our Science, or SOS for short, using the international Morse Code distress signal.
NASA's proposed budget of $16.8 billion would hold research spending at just under one-third of the budget, diverting funds to the space shuttle program, as the shuttle is being phased out, and the International Space Station. Three billion dollars will be cut in planned exploration and research projects.
Mr. Friedman says NASA administrator Michael Griffin faced difficult trade-offs, but in his view, made the wrong choices.
"NASA's a bit between a rock and a hard place. They have the job of both committing to 16 more shuttle flights, which is an enormous task, at the same time as they want to retire it. So they're committing, basically, to life-support for an old system," he said.
NASA is also planning to put humans back in space, reaching the moon by 2020. Mr. Friedman supports that goal, but says there is not enough in the budget to pay for all the proposed projects.
The Planetary Society's vice president, Bill Nye, is a well-known personality on U.S. television, where he is known as the Science Guy. He says the society played a role a few years ago in stopping another proposed cut in the NASA budget, and he is optimistic this time.
"We were able to save the mission to Pluto, New Horizons. In our opinion, we had a great deal to do with it. We brought 10,000 or more signed, paper petitions to Congressmen, let alone the thousands and thousands of emails that they received," he said.
The society has collected 5,000 signatures on its current petition.
The National Research Council, which is advising Congress on the issue, agrees that NASA lacks the funding it needs for a vigorous science program.
The American Astronomical Society also calls the budget disappointing. The organization, made up of 6,500 astronomers and space scientists, says a coherent effort to improve science and engineering in the United States, in the face of world competition, should include more support for NASA's science projects.