Skip to main content

Don't gut NASA space missions

By Janet Vertesi
December 14, 2013 -- Updated 1610 GMT (0010 HKT)
NASA's Cassini-Huygens spacecraft -- in service since 1997 and in orbit around the ringed giant since 2004 -- took pictures of Saturn and its rings during a solar eclipse on July 19. It acquired a panoramic mosaic of the Saturn system that allows scientists to see details in the rings and throughout the system as they are backlit by the sun. This mosaic marks the third time Earth has been imaged from the outer solar system. It is the second time it has been imaged by Cassini from Saturn's orbit. This annotated image shows Earth as a tiny dot. NASA's Cassini-Huygens spacecraft -- in service since 1997 and in orbit around the ringed giant since 2004 -- took pictures of Saturn and its rings during a solar eclipse on July 19. It acquired a panoramic mosaic of the Saturn system that allows scientists to see details in the rings and throughout the system as they are backlit by the sun. This mosaic marks the third time Earth has been imaged from the outer solar system. It is the second time it has been imaged by Cassini from Saturn's orbit. This annotated image shows Earth as a tiny dot.
HIDE CAPTION
Saturn in a different light
Saturn in a different light
Saturn in a different light
Saturn in a different light
Saturn in a different light
Saturn's rings in a different light
Saturn in a different light
Saturn in a different light
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NASA budget may force premature cancellation of either Curiosity or Cassini
  • Janet Vertesi: The cuts not only hurt scientists, but also our leadership in STEM
  • Vertesi: Do we really want to put someone like NASA's famous "Mohawk Guy" out of a job?
  • She says if we end the Cassini or the Curiosity mission, it would be a national crisis

Editor's note: Janet Vertesi is assistant professor of sociology at Princeton University. She has studied NASA mission teams since 2006.

(CNN) -- As scientists from around the world gathered in San Francisco for the American Geophysical Union meeting, the success stories are pouring in. On Monday, the Mars Curiosity mission team released a new study showing that the former lake bed in which the Rover landed could once have supported microbial life. The Cassini mission to Saturn released a spectacular video of mysterious hexagonal clouds whirling over the planet's pole.

But the question on everyone's mind is: Will these missions be allowed to continue? The answer may well be: No.

Next year's NASA budget is poised to force premature cancellation of either Curiosity or Cassini -- the agency's flagship missions. Funding decisions get made behind closed doors, but projected figures reduce Cassini's budget in 2014 by almost half, and half again in 2015, making it impossible to fly. Even funding for analyzing data will be "restructured," according to NASA.

Janet Vertesi
Janet Vertesi

These cuts are not only devastating for scientists; they are also potentially harmful for our economy, and our leadership in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).

When most people think of spacecraft, they think of hunks of metal flying or driving around, alone in the far reaches of the solar system. Some are cute and personable, like the Opportunity Rover or Voyager; some, like Cassini, are less well known. People might also recall the gorgeous photos spread across the front pages of the New York Times or on the cover of National Geographic. A few might even think of the famous scientists who have brought these pictures to life, like Carl Sagan, Steve Squyres, or Carolyn Porco.

The robots' stories and adventures captivate us. But what about the people who created and operate the robots? Behind the scenes, largely invisible to the public, are many of America's best scientists and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA centers, and research facilities who work on these missions to make space exploration possible.

The budget cuts will affect America's most experienced and most promising engineers and researchers. They may have to join the legions of the unemployed. Do we really want to put someone like Bobak Ferdowksi, NASA's famous "Mohawk Guy," out of a job?

Some may think that space engineers can simply move to the private sector. After all, companies like Space X or Virgin Galactic are looking for talents. But private ventures involve different motives and skills. And private companies do not fund planetary science and experiments.

Moreover, private and public research institutions from Cornell to Ohio State University rely partly on NASA grants to support their graduate students, post-docs, and other staff in STEM fields.

In other words, NASA funding not only expands the frontiers of our knowledge, it also trains the next generation of STEM leaders in our country. The budget cuts would deprive our young scientists and engineers the resources to continue their studies and, in turn, contribute to America's innovation.

Seen in perspective, the looming budget adjustment along with all the cuts in recent years sentences America's planetary exploration program to death by starvation.

Cassini, for one, is already operating on a shoestring. And NASA has put plans for future missions to the outer solar system on ice, despite efforts by the planetary community to plan cost-effective and exciting opportunities.

The continuous gutting of NASA and its planetary science programs should outrage all Americans. If we end the Cassini or the Curiosity mission, it would be a crisis not just for science but for America's leadership in STEM.

At a time when our math and science students are getting left behind, and the public is looking to our high tech and scientific sectors to power innovation and economic growth, we should invest in our sciences and continue to inspire the next generation. Let's make sure our current best and brightest working on the cutting edge don't get the pink slip.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Janet Vertesi.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT