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The Future of Planetary Science is in Your Hands
Columnist: Dr. James Green

The Future of Planetary Science is in Your Hands
6 October 2011

Many of you have heard me talk about in this column and in my public lectures how this is the most challenging budgetary time of my entire 33 year career. At a time when discoveries in planetary science are occurring at an escalating pace, the budget profiles through the horizon are the inverse. At a time when planetary science successes are at a historic high (Cassini, Spirit & Opportunity, MRO, LRO, EPOXI, O/OREOS, Stardust NExT, MESSENGER, Dawn, Juno, GRAIL, and NEOWISE); future budgets are declining. At a time when the entire world should be crowing about our collective achievements, the public perception is that NASA is over.

Remember, the President's FY12 budget that was delivered to Congress on February 14th reflects the Administration's priorities and was submitted prior to the release of the Planetary Decadal report. Since then, we have received the NRC decadal for Planetary Science, Vision and Voyages for Planetary Science in the Decade 2013-2022, which calls for a balanced program of small (Discovery), medium (New Frontiers), and large (flagship class or strategic) missions. The top-ranked flagship mission is a Mars "caching rover", the first step in a three-step campaign to return a sample from the Martian surface. The second-ranked mission is a Jupiter Europa Orbiter (JEO). Both recommendations are contingent on descoping to fit within affordable budget envelopes. We are working with ESA to develop a joint Mars program and we are intensely studying three descoped Europa missions to do the JEO science.

NASA has accepted the NRC decadal survey's recommendations and is committed to following the survey's advice in adjusting its Planetary Science portfolio going forward within the level of resources appropriated. However, the out year funding profile in the President's FY2012 Budget Request is such that NASA will be unable to initiate a new flagship in the horizon of this budget without: a) a significant partnership with ESA, and b) diverting resources from other Planetary Science programs. Thus, the balanced program envisioned by the NRC decadal survey may not be achievable.

Now the President's FY12 budget request to Congress is what was submitted last February; and in spite of our mission successes this budget appears to be the Best Case Scenario...and I am the optimist!

Why? Not because of other disciplines' budget increases and the funding of their flagships. But because the Planetary Science Community has not done our job of articulating what is the Nation's "return on its investment" in planetary science. We need to be educating our stakeholders and the public on why planetary science should be a priority for the future of this Nation. This is what the planetary science community should be doing but the silence from the community is deafening! Planetary Scientists should not be talking about another discipline's flagship. Attributing blame for a drop in the Planetary budget on another science program shows a lack of understanding in both the budget process but also in the history of how tough programs are sold.

Everyone knows about the James Webb Space Telescope but who knows what Planetary Science flagships are and what each would accomplish? We all need to get behind our #1 flagship as a partnership with ESA that leads to Mars Sample Return.

Why Planetary Science is the Nation's best science investment? Here are a few reasons:

- How did Humans get here?
We are in the middle of a major revolution in the understanding of the origin and evolution to the solar system and if there is life beyond Earth.

- Where are we going?
Planetary Science has a solid plan. The Planetary Decadal Survey articulates it clearly, and we have solid community support. As a nation, President Obama has stated that Mars was the ultimate destination for humans making planetary science a critical component to the National Space Policy.

- How can we do it?
The National Space Policy also stresses international cooperation on mutually beneficial space activities. ESA is putting in ~$1.2B (1B euros) for a new joint Mars Program with our support about the size of a New Frontiers program (also ~$1.4B). Human exploration is depending on planetary science to lead the way in understanding the hazards and benefits of humans beyond low Earth orbit. - Moon, Asteroids, Mars. Humans cannot land on pretty pictures. The US is the only nation to soft land a spacecraft that operated successfully on Mars surface.

- Our Survival.
Planetary Scientists are finding all the potentially hazardous objects that threaten the Earth. Note: We just released the WISE observations revising our threat level downward but it still is not zero (see Asteroids Near Earth).

- Inspiration.
We are re-writing the textbooks.

Now is the time planetary science is needed more than ever before. Go out and tell people of our plans and our role in NASA and the nation. Science isn't done until it's shared...and that means science isn't done until the return on investment of planetary science is understood by our stakeholders and the public who funds us!

Mars is the ultimate destination for human exploration.
"The Administrator of NASA shall: . . . By the mid-2030s, send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth" - National Space Policy

"By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it." - President Obama, April 15, 2010.

"Expand international cooperation on mutually beneficial space activities" - a goal of the National Space Policy

"Because of its potential to address essential questions regarding planetary habitability and life, Mars sample return has been a primary goal for Mars exploration" [Vision and Voyages for Planetary Science in the Decade 2013-2022, NRC, National Academy of Sciences, pg. 9-15, 2011]

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About: Dr. James Green
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Dr. Green is the Director of Planetary Science at NASA Headquarters. He views his job as the keeper of NASA's planetary program and the top advocate for that program to flourish and grow.
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Last Updated: 7 Oct 2011