Where science and tech meet creativity.

Fine print: While I receive funding from NASA for some of my work, this blog post written by me as a private citizen.

Today was the NASA Town Hall; that 1 or more hour window of time when some official from NASA stands at the podium and tells us how NASA will grow or crush our dreams. The very first NASA town hall meeting I attended was in 2003, at an LPSC meeting very much like the one I’m attending now, but that was a different economic time. It was actually the same week that we started bombing Iraq after 9/11. At that NASA Town Hall a woman whom I don’t remember stood up and outlined how over the next 10 years everything the planetary sciences field asked for in their Decadal Survey planning document was going to be built and flown. It was glorious. For every science goal, there was a planned mission.

That was 2003.

It is now 2012.

Tonight, Steven Mackwell, director of the Lunar & Planetary Institute, opened NASA night by saying it was going to be a “Colorful” evening. He then turned the microphone over to John Grunsfeld, former NASA chief scientist, former Hubble repairing astronaut, former deputy director at the Space Telescope Science Institute, and current Assoc. Administer of NASA in charge of the Science Mission Director.

Grunsfeld is kind of a superhero for most of us. He was a scientist. He fixed the Hubble. And then he did some more science. Now he’s fighting the good fight to try and make sure all of us can do even more science.

Tonight he had the distasteful job of going over the budget with us. “Here’s the NASA budget. None of these numbers are new,” he said. And then he made it clear he doesn’t like it either, “The budget got whacked… Am I allowed to say whacked?” At the end of the day, the problems came down to a lack of paying it forward. Normally, when one mission goes from planning and construction (expensive) to operations (cheap, comparatively) its budget is reinvested into a new mission, paying the science forward and letting new ideas and new missions get a start. This year, when Mars Science Lab launched, and with Ladee nearing launch, we should have seen their budgets reinvested. But we didn’t.

Last year, at LPSC, the decadal survey was released, and things looked bad, but this year, the actual budget is significantly below our worst-case scenario. Planetary Science , this community in particular, saw a 20% budget cut. As was pointed out during the Q&A by Karl Mitchell (JPL), those 20% represent jobs, and there are already people pre-emptively leaving the field ahead of projected layoffs. What a lot of people don’t realize is these cuts will most deeply impact the youth in our field. Many senior people who normally can find funding for themselves and a small fleet of postdocs and students will now just be funding themselves. It’s hard. It’s ugly. Especially when we work so hard to get people to get educations in this field.

Grunsfeld tried to explain where this mess came from. NASA as a whole is pretty much in a flat budget situation. The running joke, as Grunsfeld pointed out, is “Flat is the new up.” You hear it everywhere. But, as Grunsfeld continued (paraphrase) “That is belittling.”

But in this economy, it may also “somewhat mean that we are valued.”

In other words, it could have been a whole lot worse.

NASA has been here before. In that lull between Apollo and the Space Shuttle, between the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Mission and the 1981 first shuttle launch, we saw ourselves faced with no way to get a man into space. Budgets were tight, the gas crisis had people waiting for hours for gas, and Silicon Valley was just starting its first big boom.

Today, we can get people to space, at the cost of $63 million or so aboard Russian rockets. It’s a solution. Today, we don’t know when we’ll next fly our own NASA rocket, but SpaceX will probably be launching people in a couple years. Budgets are tight, but while gas is stupid-expensive, there aren’t lines. And, well, Silicon Valley is starting to boom again.

We’ve been here before. We just need to brace ourselves for the turbulence.

The president’s budget drops NASA’s entire budget to less then 0.5% of the US budget. This is the lowest percentage we’ve had in decades, and the lowest dollar total we’ve had in a while.

In order to survive, we need to prioritize. Well, not we. I wasn’t there. Actually, poor John Grunsfeld, the messenger we shouldn’t kill, wasn’t there either. He was hired after the budgets were set.

So here is how we got here. And I’m going to use provocative language on purpose here, borrowing from the Republican contraception debate.

NASA doesn’t want to abort or kill its young. This means, missions that are already in gestation – funded, in the process of being built, scientists and engineers actively employed in taking care of all the details – get first priority.

In the planetary sciences, we have two missions essentially in their third trimester: getting MAVEN and LADEE finished and launched is the highest priority. As Grunsfeld put it, “The most dangerous place for a spacecraft is on the Earth.” From problems due to gravity, dust, accidents, let’s repeat gravity, and, well, congress, lots of things can keep the mission from ever flying. It is better to launch something on a sub-optimal date (parking orbits exist), then to not launch. We need these missions launched. So… start the budget by funding them.

The next priority is the just conceived missions – Osiris-REX and the still being finalized next discovery mission (think of this as “the eggs are all fertilized, and now NASA is picking one for implantation”). These are missions were new hires are still being determined, and physical, flight ready equipment doesn’t exist, but there are fully fleshed out plans to get from here to science. The nursery has been painted, and it’s just waiting to be filled with the sounds of screaming rockets, and graduate students crying to be fed their data.

(ok, this is a lame analogy, but I’m trying to make a point)

Beyond this, priorities are making sure there is food on hand for future generations of missions, and food for spacecraft means developing the Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advanced_Stirling_Radioisotope_Generator).

Then there is the matter of taking care of the children we have; there are a variety of missions still in their primary phase, flying strong and still working to solve their primary questions. Killing them would be like taking a gun to a toddler. You don’t even know what it’s capable of yet – it could discover anything. We need to let these missions see through their science missions.

And then we have the older missions that are still doing good work and requested time to go into extended phases. The committees that decide if we can fund these are essentially death panels that are enjoined to determine who is still employed 6-months from now to work on missions that are working and doing novel science. Think of all the things we wouldn’t know if back in 2004 the Mars Rovers hadn’t gotten an extension? (I’m sweating through one mission’s senior review, waiting to see if it gets carried forward).

Oddly, beneath all these plans is the need to maintain our international commitments to provide promised parts to other nation’s spacecraft. This feels a bit like deprioritizing our child support payments. We agreed with Italy to birth the Bepi-Columbo mission, and we need to hold up our side of that agreement, and provide the instruments and support we promised. We already betrayed our relationship with ESA by backing out of future Mars plans, now we need to see it through with Italy. The same is true with ESA on Rosetta, and Mars Express. We need to keep our commitments and try and re-earn the trust and re-build the relationships we have damaged. We spurned our co-parents, forcing hard choices on them that made the missions suffer. We need to try and repair these relationships.

Beyond this, we need to have a healthy Research and Technology development budget (think college fund), and we also need to start trying to repair the hole left in our hearts when congress aborted the Mars program. We need to move on, and start planning for our next try; planning our next attempt to have a Mars mission.

And when we’re done taking care of our existing children – taking care of our existing commitments – and when we’re done trying to secure our future energy and technological needs… when we’re done, there is simply nothing left. Not until someone figures out how to bring in more money.

You shouldn’t have another child if taking care of it would force you to murder an existing child, and with the NASA budget, finding funding for a new and novel missions would mean killing off missions in extended or primary operations.

This means, the normal calls for proposals for new programs and new missions are on hold. Calls for Discovery missions are moved to 2015, adding a 54-month gap to their normal every 24 month cycle. Calls for New Frontiers missions are getting pushed to 2016. The program I largely rely on, ROSES EPOESS grants, are skipping this year, and hopefully coming back out in 2013.

It’s grim.

And yet….

And yet Obama still plans to have a person on an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars by 2030.

And this is where the new paradigm comes into play. If NASA is going to send people to planetary bodies, the planetary science needs to be done to understand those bodies.

Modern planetary science is 50 years old. In 1962, Mariner 2 went to Venus and sent back our first in situ data from another world. Gone were the days of using telescopes on earth to stare at reflected starlight. We were there.

Today there are spacecraft orbiting Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Earth, the Moon, Mars, and Saturn. New Horizons is on its way to Pluto and Juno is on its way to Jupiter. To use net speak, we’ve used spacecraft to pwn the solar system. All you data belong to us. We have done all of this in 50 years.

Right now, the future looks really bleak. Budgets hurt. A lot. People are getting fired. We don’t know what the next new mission will be. We don’t know when the next mission will be. But with Grunsfeld and his colleague (and I’m guessing cohort) Jim Green, we know why things are the way they are, and we know we’ll be heard as we try and figure out how to keep doing great science with what we have.

One of the ideas that is floating around is the “We need to double NASA’s budget” argument. Neil deGrasse Tyson uses it. Someone used it today. My God that would be amazing if it happened, but it isn’t going to happen if we say we can only do amazing things if you double NASA’s budget. If someone comes to me and says, “I know you only pay $20/hr, and I’ll do a crap job constantly complaining if you give me $20/hr, BUT if you give me $40/hr then I might not complain, and I’ll do all these amazing things…” Well, that’s someone I’m not going to hire. The person I’m going to hire and fight for and find spare dollars and cool opportunities for is the person who comes to me and says, “I’ll take the job. I just want to do cool and amazing things. I can’t work every miracle, but I’ll work hard on what you pay me, and find ways to leverage others to build even better things then you can imagine.” That person, that is the person I fight for and increase the funding for. And NASA, in this moment, in these times of crisis, needs to demonstrate it can do amazing things today, and that it doesn’t need to wait for some flush future that I don’t see coming. If a lean NASA can inspire and innovate Congress will be able to believe that a fat NASA can build a fat portfolio of projects.

We’re in a trust re-earning stage. We’re in a post-shuttle stage. We’re in a stage of some amount of confusion. NASA needs to prove it still has its shit together – and it will.

But we’ve been here before, and we’ll make it as a field.

One key point I want to end on is the need to use what is happening today as a civics lesson. In our Astro 101 classes and in our Geo 101 classes we need to teach people how science and politics play together. People need to want NASA, and they need to be civically engaged, and they need to bring their want and their engagement together to let politicians know they want NASA to succeed.

NASA’s budget is in the grand scheme of things is nothing. McDonalds could easily fund a mission off their marketing budget. No big deal. According to Forbes, there are 38 individuals with personal wealth greater than NASA‘s entire budget. Oh, and the stimulus bill last year, according to Tyson, was more than NASA’s cumulative budget across history. NASA doesn’t get a lot of money. It’s not a lot – but with that not a lot bordering on nothing, NASA has pwnd the solar system with spacecraft.

We’re creative. We’re smart. As a field we will survive this mess. But not all of us. And I already mourn the students, post docs, and young people who may not survive. … And I recognize I’m one of the early career people, and I just hope I survive.

But on the worst of days, we need to remember, NASA pwnd the solar system. All the data belongs to us (and it’s in the Planetary Data System).