NASA budget might have less space for JPL’s planetary science

At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, tucked into the hills above Los Angeles, these are heady days: The robot dubbed Curiosity is hurtling toward Mars and is expected to put scientists on their strongest footing yet to determine whether the Red Planet is or ever has been hospitable to life. More than 1,000 of JPL’s scientists, engineers and technicians — a full fifth of the lab’s workforce — have put in time on the mission.

But a dark development has tempered the euphoria.

President Obama’s $17.7-billion budget request for NASA for the 2013 fiscal year includes a $300-million cut to planetary science, the very work JPL specializes in.

That could mean a 20% reduction in NASA’s planetary science budget and, at JPL, job losses in the hundreds. What’s more, say proponents of robotic space exploration, the cuts would imperil the search for extraterrestrial life, one of the most vexing and enchanting questions faced by science, at the very moment answers seem tantalizingly near.

“We’re on the verge of finding evidence of life as we know it,” said Jim Bell, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University who has worked with JPL on Mars missions. “To pull back from that would be a real shame. It is nothing less than a shocking set of cuts.”

Particularly during economic lulls, NASA has long favored astronauts over robots. Manned spaceflight is seen as having greater public allure and, consequently, is an easier political sell. These days, however, NASA’s plans for human spaceflight are murky, critics contend.

With the Space Shuttle retired, many hopes rest on the proposed Space Launch System — a megarocket that could require $40 billion and 10 years before it’s ready to take anyone up. Even then, no one agrees on where it might be headed, or what its astronauts might learn.

Robotic space exploration, on the other hand, has quietly entered a gilded age. Space telescopes are peering into distant pockets of the universe in search of planets like our own. A probe en route to Jupiter is searching for the recipe that created our solar system. And JPL’s Mars missions — which arguably have captivated the public more than any manned mission in recent memory — have become perhaps the brightest jewel in NASA’s crown.

“In terms of damage to the effort to search for life in the universe, it’s enormous,” Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, a nonprofit group that urges the exploration and settlement of the planet, said of the proposed budget cut.

The White House did not make the cut unilaterally. Beth Robinson, NASA’s chief financial officer, called the decision a “joint enterprise” between the White House, the Office of Management and Budget, and NASA.

Although that may not be a source of comfort at JPL, NASA officials insist that the government is not moving away from robotic planetary exploration but merely recalibrating expectations in a time of austerity. That is particularly true of Mars, said former astronaut John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

NASA is studying how best to examine Mars down the road, with an eye toward sending astronauts there in 2030 — with the assistance, potentially, of the SLS megarocket. Grunsfeld likened the situation to a family planning a vacation in Fiji, then realizing that on a tight budget, a trip to Baja might be more realistic.

“NASA is not backing off from Mars exploration,” he said. “We’re pacing our Mars exploration.”

But the planned cuts are already having a significant effect, even before Congress takes up the budget.

JPL officials say the $300-million cut eliminates the possibility of pursuing new, high-level planetary missions, such as the Voyager and Cassini explorations, that have kept NASA at the forefront of space exploration.

With the release of the budget, the United States has pulled out of two long-awaited partnerships with the European Space Agency to conduct additional exploration of Mars in 2016 and 2018.

Those missions were considered significant because they represented the next major step in Mars exploration: figuring out how to bring home soil samples, which many scientists believe is the only way to determine once and for all whether Mars is or was hospitable to life. One JPL official questioned how NASA plans to send an astronaut to Mars in 20 years when it has yet to figure out how to bring back a rock.

The budget also does not include funding for a proposed mission to the Jupiter moon of Europa, which scientists are eager to explore because of suggestions that it contains an underground ocean.

And, in a final affront to backers of planetary exploration, funding for the Kepler space telescope will end later this year if it doesn’t win an extension. Kepler is searching for Earth-like planets that orbit in what is known as the “habitable zone” — the appropriate distance from their star to host life, in theory.

Kepler has discovered more than 2,300 planetary “candidates,” said William Borucki, Kepler’s principal investigator at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Northern California. Scientists believe the telescope could also produce an explosion in the understanding of stars. “We need a longer mission to do the job,” Borucki said.

Scientists are concerned about a significant “brain drain” at JPL in coming years if the La Cañada Flintridge lab’s planetary missions are curtailed, particularly among its sterling roster of Mars specialists.

“The skill base to enter the Martian atmosphere, descend to the surface and land softly is a pretty unique skill,” said Richard O’Toole, executive manager of JPL’s Office of Legislative Affairs.

The Mars test bed, tucked away at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, doesn’t look like much more than a glorified garage. Inside, the lights are harsh, the air ducts noisy and the work is the toilsome side of science: Tinker, test, repeat. “But step back and look at the big picture … wow,” said engineer Steve Schroeder.

Schroeder plodded across a bed of gravel on a recent morning and unclipped a sensor on a six-wheel dune buggy of sorts, bedazzling with wires, lasers and cameras — the working replica of the Curiosity rover. This is where Curiosity’s handlers prepare for its August landing.

Engineers said they are fighting to ignore the political noise and to focus on guiding Curiosity safely to Mars. “We all feel very lucky,” Schroeder said.

“I just want to concentrate on this,” he said when asked about the cuts. “This is the biggest thing I’ve ever worked on. We have to make sure that it’s perfect.”

U.S. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) has pledged to fight the cuts, and he grilled NASA Administrator Charles Bolden about the budget request last week at a meeting of a congressional science subcommittee. Schiff was joined by several Republicans, including Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), who said NASA’s planetary science program would not survive the proposed cut.

“We’re making intriguing progress in identifying the building blocks of life in other places,” Schiff said in an interview. “To walk back from that and leave those questions unanswered means that we step back from potentially game-changing revelations about the origins of life in the universe, about our place in the cosmos. It’s hard to put a price tag on that.”