Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Save Planetary Exploration and Updates

Updates follow the request that American citizens lobby Congress to restore NASA’s Planetary Science Budget.

Help Save Planetary Science

If you are an American citizen, you can help save NASA’s planetary science program by writing your Congressman and Senators along with the chairs the key committees.  (For background, see this post and this post.)

Both the American Geophysical Union and the PlanetarySociety have background and the latter has a tool to send your email.  (Email is now the best way to communicate; physical letters must be irradiated before delivery after the anthrax attacks several years ago.)  In addition to your own representatives, copy the key chairs: Representative Ralph Hall (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee (enter the zip code 75087 at this website for the email to go to him, but make it clear that the email is a copy http://writerep.house.gov/writerep/welcome.shtml) and Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) chairwoman of of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science (http://www.mikulski.senate.gov/contact/shareyouropinion.cfm).

An article in the Los Angeles Times helps to make clear what is at stake: “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.”  

If the key scientists and engineers needed to plan, design, build, test, and operate planetary missions leave JPL, John Hopkin’s Applied Physics Laboratory, and other key centers, it will take years to rebuild the expertise when the budget picture eventually improves.  

Can writing actually help?  I remember the last time that the planetary science program was facing major cuts.  I wrote my letters (physical letters, then).  Later I remember reading a Congressional staffer saying they had been overwhelmed by the number of letters they received supporting the program.  The actual number escapes me, but I remember being shocked at how few it was, dozens I think.  The cuts planned, including cancelling the Galileo mission to the Jupiter system were partially reversed. Imagine what hundreds of emails could do today.


This week, the European Space Agency’s  Space Science Advisory Committee (SSAC) will decide which of the three proposed large science missions to recommend to ESA’s management for approval.  In contention against two solid competitors is the JUICE mission to Jupiter and the Galilean moons.  While the official decision will not be made until late this Spring, the BBC’s Jonathan Amos writes that word likely will leak out on the recommendation soon.  

I previously wrote about the Senior Review that is considering which NASA spacecraft in extended missions should continue to receive funding and at what levels.  While the results for planetary missions like Cassini won’t be known for several months, the results for astrophysics missions are known.  All missions, including the Kepler exoplanet hunting mission, have been recommended for continued funding.  In the latter case, funding is recommended through 2016.  This will significantly enhance the mission’s ability to find Earth-like worlds potentially capable of hosting life.  You can read more about the recommendations at Universe Today.  


  1. I'm not an American citizen and I might very well be wrong on this but I still think that a physical letter, when possible, is better.
    The reason is that congress is full of old people that still appreciate paper more. Also, a physical letter means that you care enough to actually write it, print it, find an envelope, buy stamps, go and post it.
    A lot more effort than writing it and hit send and that, in turn, means that you actually care and you are not just clicking "like" or "dislike" on a whim.

  2. Enzo -

    I agree with your reasoning, but history has caused a change. About a decade ago, someone mailed anthrax-coated letters to key officials. Since then, all mail to Congress is irradiated, causing a six week delay.

    People who regularly communicate with Congress recommend email, and that is the method promoted on Congressional web pages.

  3. Enzo’s right about hard copies, but there’s another way of getting one to your congressperson without delay—fax. I remember reading an article (which I couldn’t dig up again, unfortunately) about different ways to contact one’s congressman, and the staffers interviewed said faxes were best. There are so many phone calls and emails (especially emails) that they’re used more as barometers of public opinion than anything else. A niche issue like planetary exploration would get lost in the shuffle. Fax is considered the best way to contact a congressperson—it has the physical immediacy of a letter and is essentially guaranteed to be read in some detail, rather than simply skimmed like an email would. Furthermore, there are fewer faxes sent than emails or phone calls, so niche issues have more potential to stand out (although it can still be a long shot).