WASHINGTON—Scientists who study the sun, moon, planets and stars on Thursday protested the Bush administration's plan to send humans back to the moon and on to Mars.
They say the president's two-year-old Vision for Space Exploration program is gobbling up billions of dollars that they think could be better used for less expensive projects, including new telescopes and unmanned robots such as the twin rovers on Mars.
NASA has cut more than $3 billion from what it had promised for Earth and space science programs to make room for the moon-Mars exploration missions and 16 more shuttle flights to the half-finished International Space Station.
Partly as a result, the launch of the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope has been delayed until 2013, the search for Earthlike planets around other stars has been deferred indefinitely and the budget for the "astrobiology" program—the quest for life on other worlds—has been slashed by 50 percent.
NASA's budget for the coming year "will not provide the nation with a healthy and productive astronomy and astrophysics program," said Joseph Taylor, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at Princeton University. In 2001, Taylor co-chaired a committee of the National Academy of Sciences that set priorities for space science for the current decade.
Taylor and other space scientists voiced their frustrations at a hearing of the House Science Committee on NASA's science budget.
"Does it make sense to cut science in NASA when the president told the nation in his State of the Union address that we must increase our investment in science to ensure that America retains its competitive edge?" asked Wes Huntress, the head of NASA's space science program from 1993 to 1998.
"The consequences of these unprecedented reductions would be to cripple the ability of NASA's science enterprise ... precisely the opposite of what this country needs to remain competitive," said Huntress, who's now the director of the Geophysical Laboratory at the Carnegie Institution of Washington.
"If NASA continues to drain resources from science and technology, then America can retire as the leading nation in the scientific exploration of space, whether by robots or by humans," he said.
If no more money is approved for space science, the witnesses reluctantly said, they'd be willing to abandon or delay expensive flagship missions—such as a search for possible life on Jupiter's icy moon Europa—to allow more lower-cost projects that give work to young scientists.
Berrien Moore, the director of the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, said the latest budget cuts "could have a devastating effect on a program already pared to the bone." Among astronomers, he said, "the sense of gloom and discouragement is widespread."
Fran Bagenal, an astronomer at the University of Colorado in Boulder, said NASA's space-mission launches will drop from a dozen this year to only one by 2010 because of the budget squeeze.
Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., the chairman of the House Science Committee, sympathized with the scientists. He told them he'd try to increase NASA's science budget but held out little hope of success. "It's going to be a tough sell," he said.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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