When Every Planet Is Funded but Your Own
published during a waxing gibbous moon.
04/04/2017

One by one they queue behind microphones in the main ballroom of the Woodlands Waterway Marriott Hotel and Convention Center in The Woodlands, Texas. The first, frantic day of sessions at the 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) has ended. NASA’s leadership has just given the planetary science community an update on the state of affairs, and the state of affairs is good. A nervous scientist takes hold of the mic and goes first.

“Out of all the planets in the solar system,” he says, fumbling, “there’s only one that NASA has spent, rightfully so, a big part of its attention on and that’s the one we’re standing on. The cutbacks that I’ve heard are going to be happening in Earth research, specifically, as it relates to anthropogenic climate change, which NASA, I’m proud to say, has been a world leader in research of—so what comments do you have to address that?”

It is an inelegant question, and an unfair one to Jim Green, the director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. Green works for NASA headquarters, and NASA is an agency of the White House. He can’t possibly attack the sitting president without being fired, and everyone knows this. Green is congenial and reflective generally, but his response is excruciatingly factual and clearly nonplussed. “So indeed NASA’s budget has been released,” he says, “and in that budget, the Earth Science [Division] has a $100 million decrease from FY16 and that’s the president’s proposed budget for Earth science.”

planet

Jim Green, director of the NASA Planetary Science Division, speaks at NASA Night at the 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. Image Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute

The scientist responds: “But how does that affect climate change research specifically?”

Green says: “Earth Science is following the Earth science decadal [survey], and will continue to do so.” Green pushes the microphone away. The question is answered. He doesn’t represent the Earth Science Division. He has the rest of the solar system to attend to. Another questioner brings up Earth science again, encouraging each person in the room to contact his or her member of Congress. And then yet another questioner suggests that the Planetary Science Division take on some of Earth Science’s burden by funding additional planetary analog studies (“killing two birds with one stone”). A third stands: Call your congressman. A fourth practically laments that the planetary science budget is too large.

“When I look across the room, I know who to blame.”

What a turn of fortune that is for planetary scientists! Only five years ago, President Obama’s budget eviscerated the Planetary Science Division budget, cutting it by a fifth. The following year held steady, with that number slowly recovering. President Trump’s first budget, in comparison, asks for $1.9 billion—a 16% increase in funding over the fiscal year 2016. Green extolled this in his opening remarks and credits the good work of the community for making space exploration an attractive investment. “This is historic,” he said. “We’ve never had a proposed budget this high. This is also the highest increase in any organization at NASA this year. When I look across the room, I know who to blame.”

From a budgetary standpoint, this administration has thus far been good to planetary science. The real hero of the story is Congress, which has tirelessly supported NASA, but in this instance the White House didn’t fight funding the exploration of Europa, for example, even as it demanded that the State Department give up a third of its funding. This administration has been horrible in ways less quantifiable: monstrous immigration policies keeping some scientists from abroad out, and repelling others; a general hostility toward science in areas ranging from climate change to vaccinations; 40% of U.S. universities seeing a decline in foreign enrollment. Moreover, some details in the budget are yet to be worked out yet―paying for the Europa Lander, most notably, and the exact figures NASA can expect―but for the Planetary Science Division specifically, it’s a good budget so far.

“There have been other NASA Nights that have not been nearly as collegial as last night,” says Louise Proctor, the new director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, the organization behind the annual conference. We are sitting in the courtyard outside of the convention center. She tells NOW.SPACE that the planetary science community takes great pride in NASA, and therefore has a sense of ownership of the budget and the agency in general. “When people stand up at NASA Night and ask a question, it’s like standing up at your neighborhood association meeting and asking questions. It’s your community—you care about it. And that’s how people feel about it.”

planet

Louise Procter, director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, speaks at the 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. Image Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute

“NASA Night”—formally the NASA Headquarters Briefing—is a tradition at the conference, in which the agency’s leadership stands before what will likely be the largest yearly assembly of planetary scientists in the world. Were an asteroid to crash into the Waterway Marriott in The Woodlands, Texas during LPSC, the entire field of science would be set back a generation or more. Over one thousand people were packed into the conference center’s main ballroom for the event. After so many years of woeful news, will Jim Green ever get to deliver unto them unambiguously good news with no asterisks or caveats?

NASA carries out its missions through four directorates: aeronautics research, human exploration and operations, space technology, and science. The science directorate is itself comprised of four divisions: planetary science, heliophysics, astrophysics, and Earth science. In terms of funding, science gets just under a third of the agency’s total funding ($5.6 billion of $19.29 billion), and Earth science gets just over a third of that ($1.9 billion). Presently, the agency is operating on an extension of the fiscal year 2016 budget until April, at which time Congress must either pass a budget or extend 2016 a little longer.

planet

Venus (left) and Earth (right) today and hopefully also tomorrow and the day after that, etc. Credit: NASA JPL

It would all be so good, so perfect, if not for Donald Trump’s perverse hostility to the planet Earth. And it is all done with misdirection and sleight of hand: We can’t act on climate change because we don’t know enough about it, he says, while simultaneously cutting the missions that will… help us know enough about it. And this isn’t merely good government at work or the elimination of redundancies between agencies. Even as the Earth Science Division suffers, the Environmental Protection Agency will lose 31% of its budget; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will lose 17%. These are existential cuts. If this were a movie, it would be the work of some overwrought and unbelievable supervillain who hopes to destroy the world (albeit in slow motion). The reality is something far more shameful: stopping the discovery of bad news in order to avoid having to act on it.

The crowd at LPSC should have been jubilant. With a surplus of hundreds of millions of dollars, the planetary science division might send a $200 million mission to Venus, the first of a new sub-Discovery class of missions. The division might have a little extra money for an ambitious ice giants flagship mission to both Uranus and Neptune. It might fund research for a lot of scientists for a very long time. But instead of joy, the weather at LPSC was survivor guilt with a chance of minor existential crisis. If you are in the business of studying planets, it’s hard to ignore the one you’re riding on. You don’t need to know much about Venus to know that it’s not much of a role model for Earth.