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Yesterday’s Michael Griffin talk left me feeling just plain disgruntled. This morning, walking over from Starbucks, the gang of us ran into a NASA related person (whose name I didn’t ask permission to use, so I won’t), and had a really good talk about what went wrong yesterday, what was meant, and a few things regarding NASA’s budget allocations that I’ve talked about before (things my frustrations yesterday erased from my blogging). I’m feeling more gruntled, and I want to share my thoughts.

Michael Griffin is in a really rough spot. I won’t go so far as to say he is a congressional / Bush administration toady, but he is a political appointment. He doesn’t generally get to make policy. Rather, he works to educate congress and the administration, and then does what they tell him to do. And sometimes, what he is told to do, includes having congress micromanage his budget through many billion-dollar earmarks (line items in the national budget that dictate he must spend a certain part of his budget on a specific project some congressman wants to see happen). He is in the position of just trying to get things done that people tell him to do.

And this year a small and powerful subset of the astronomical community, in fear for several of their programs, went to their congressmen and managed to get their pet project (SIMS PlanetQuest) funded. And the funding was pretty much the amount of money needed for everything else. So now Griffin is stuck with SIMS, and has to cut money from, well, everything else. Period.

I firmly believe he was wrong to attack the entire community, publicly, for the actions of a subset of the community.

But all because he had a 2-year-old moment while at the podium doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a problem that he needs input on from my community – the scientific astronomical community – to try and fix. He needs to rearrange millions of dollars to make room for SIMS, and that means cutting programs. The question is, how you decide what to cut?

There are many strategies. You can kill the thing that is “the weakest link,” the programs that have the greatest cost overruns, and that struggle the most to meet deadlines. But sometimes these are the programs that have the greatest scientific potential. You can kill the things that have the highest cost for the least return of data. But sometimes a small amount of data can change everything. You can kill the things that are highest risk – the planetary exploration missions which get lost almost as often as not. But when these missions work, like the Mars Rovers, you have a powerful tool for off world exploration.

So what do you cut?

Here’s my idea, and it is an idea I will write to NASA – just as the scientific community is asked to write decadal surveys to plot our 10 year missions of scientific explorations (the things that suggest how money should be spent based on input from the wider community), perhaps we should also reactivate our last decadal studies working group and ask them to help NASA determine what to cut the same way they helped NASA determine what to build.

I remember sitting in a session at the Lunar and Planetary Sciences Consortium listening to a NASA rep tick through the list of our greatest questions, ticking off the missions NASA had planned to answer those questions. It was day of hope, and happiness, and plans to see what we know radically expand as we expanded our robotic presence in the solar system.

Today is not a day of hope, but like anyone who’s fallen off a horse and hurt themselves (something I’ve done), you have to put the pieces together, go through the therapy, and understand some things just aren’t going to work quite right anymore, but life goes on. Our dreams for the decadal survey are broken, but we need to go through the budgetary therapy and realize there are missions we just can’t do anymore. We don’t have the ability. And we have to move on. I feel that as a community, we have to define through our trusted decadal survey committees, how our scientific lives will go on and move on.

NASA has some plans that we can’t affect, but we can use to our advantage. The heavy lift vehicles they are planning to build to take men to the moon can also be used to launch large planetary exploration platforms. Perhaps our hopes to build a Europa explorer to burrow through the ice and look for life (or at least fluid), can benefit from the added lift abilities. Perhaps, the telescope after James Webb can be larger – a space version of the terrestrial Very Large Telescope. There is potential, and we can dream new dreams that build on that new potential.

We have to move on. Fine. I get that. I don’t have to like it, and you don’t have to call me (and my professional colleagues) names. Let’s work together to build a new day within the budgetary, Bush Administration mandated, congressional omnibus defined box that we have all be forced to live with in.

The greatest problem I see in this non-dialogue – this talking as telling non-love fest we’ve fallen into – is a lack of approaching one another from a position of respect. Fraser Cain put it well: The same tactics that are needed to deal with pseudo-science advocates, where you persuade with science and data and not emotions, must be used to guide this discussion. In trying to convince someone the world is older than 6000 years, I have to start from the point of believing I’m talking to someone with a brain that can look at the data and through education understand that the universe is 13.7+/-2 billion years old, and this is a many fact-based understanding from many sources of data rather than a faith-based number requiring trust in a single source. If you want to change my opinions on how much of NASA’s effort should go to the manned space program, give me the facts, don’t tell me that if I don’t agree I belong at the kid’s table. Through mutual respect, dialogue and change are both possible.

Dialogue with us Michael Griffin. Give us the facts. Be candid without being emotional and name-calling. Tell us specifically what you need from us and work with us to develop a communications channel that we can use to get you what you need. We are here and we want to hear what you have to say.