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NASA advocates trade baked goods for support

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The exchange was simple and sweet: free “planetary” baked goods — asteroid Rice Krispie treats, deep space cupcakes — for a few signatures.

As some of the thousands of visitors to Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Saturday open house scouted out parking at nearby La Cañada High School, advocates for government-sponsored scientific research took advantage of the pro-space crowd to rally support for NASA.

Shaunna Costicov, chief operating officer of the recently formed Society for Planetary Defense, spent the previous night baking treats, which she placed on a table in the high school’s parking lot. Those who signed their names to letters addressed to members of Congress were allowed to enjoy the goods. Live music and a Mars rover replica with a children’s seat provided entertainment.

“I think NASA is viewed as a thing of the past, rather than a thing of the future, and that’s where our real misstep is,” Costicov said. “If you look back 50 years ago at how excited we were on space exploration and all the new things that we were doing … I think that we’ve lost that.”

President Obama’s proposed 2012-13 budget included a $300-million hit to NASA’s planetary science programs, which form the foundation of work done at La Cañada Flintridge’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) pushed to boost funding, and in April the House Appropriations Committee restored $88 million of the proposed cuts. A companion Senate proposal would restore up to $100 million. The two bills will head to a House-Senate conference committee, where the final number will be hashed out.

But Costicov, along with students and professors from UCLA and Caltech, wants the funding for planetary science restored to the 2012 level.

Jean-Pierre Williams, a geological and planetary research scientist at UCLA, said the cuts would undermine unmanned exploration of our solar system, creating a generational gap with no major missions.

It could mean that a mission like Mars Science Laboratory, which is landing the rover Curiosity on Mars Aug. 5, wouldn’t happen again for years.

“We’re on the brink of making discoveries,” he said. “It would really be a shame to turn our backs on these discoveries and not follow through.”

Williams said the proposed NASA cuts have already had an impact, as the space agency had to pull out of ExoMars, a project with the European Space Agency to send an orbiter to the Red Planet.

The planned cuts for next year would also affect the brain trust that has been built up at NASA facilities, including JPL.

“JPL has this very unique skill of being able to land hardware on the surface of the planet,” he said. “The loss of jobs, of scientists and engineers who know how to do this, would be devastating.”

Schiff said in an interview that he is hopeful Congress will restore more of NASA’s budget.

“We certainly have made progress, but we have a long way to go,” he said.

He said scientists have been knocking on doors in Washington, D.C., as well as handing out cookies in La Cañada, to raise awareness of the budget situation.

Scrapping future missions, including the Mars missions and the Europa venture to Jupiter, would be a “terrible disservice” to the country, he said.

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