NASA Turns Away From the Final Frontier

Budget cuts rein in explorers.

By Gregory MoneJun 1, 2006 5:00 AM


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When the Cassini spacecraft recently found hints of liquid water on Saturn's moon Enceladus, "everyone was saying, 'Hey, let's go to Enceladus!'" exclaims planetary scientist Fran Bagenal of the University of Colorado at Boulder. But faced with looming costs to keep the space shuttle flying and to send humans back to the moon, NASA revealed it would need to siphon funds away from space science—$3 billion over the next five years.

Among the top casualties is the Space Interferometry Mission PlanetQuest, a space observatory geared toward searching for Earth-like planets around nearby stars. Its budget was slashed in half. Work on the Terrestrial Planet Finder, a follow-up mission that would capture direct images of other Earths, has been indefinitely delayed. NASA's astrobiology program, which explores the possibility of life on other worlds, will be cut 50 percent in 2007. Planet hunter Geoffrey Marcy of the University of California at Berkeley describes his colleagues as "deeply depressed."

Equally disheartening are cuts to basic research and analysis, says Mark Sykes, director of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona. This budget category yields small grants, often given to young scientists, for advanced studies of exotic missions—like a probe to Enceladus. Yet there's a little good news. Dawn, a mission to Ceres and Vesta (large asteroids that may be stillborn planets), is back on the books. As for the renewed focus on the moon, Marcy wonders "if people are truly inspired by going somewhere we've already been. I don't think that's as inspiring as finding out whether life exists elsewhere in the universe."

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