Don't gut NASA space missions

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
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.
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).
Janet Vertesi
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 engi