NASA Planetary Science Not Being Killed, Says NASA Official

Murmurs of disbelief and “say it ain’t so” rippled across social media outlets late Wednesday and early Thursday in reaction to an op-ed by Mars Society President Robert Zubrin, who claimed that “the Obama administration intends to terminate NASA’s planetary exploration program.” The article was published in the Washington Times, and claimed that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) was also targeting the space astronomy program “for destruction.” This would all be horrible if true, but the director of NASA’s Planetary Science division, Jim Green assured members of the NASA Advisory Council’s Planetary Science subcommittee that it is not.

“It is not true the planetary program is being killed,” Green told members during a teleconference, according to Space News.

While the future of NASA’s budget is not looking stellar by any means, gutting NASA’s “crown jewel” – the very successful planetary science division — seems ludicrous and Zubrin’s claims appear unfounded. He supplied no source of his details beyond saying he had “leaked” information. Likely, his article was his way of advertising an upcoming symposium he is part of, a tactic he has used before.

NASA is likely facing budget cuts but not because of President Obama. In 2010, the President proposed to give NASA an additional $6 billion over five years, but Congress couldn’t agree on the 2011 budget and NASA since has worked under a continuing resolution at 2010 funding levels. In the latest budget proposal, Obama proposed freezing NASA’s budget for five years (not cutting), putting the budget at $18.7 billion annually through fiscal 2016. The budget provided $5 billion for science, including $1.54 billion for planetary science, along with $3.9 billion for future exploration systems and $569 million for aeronautics research.

NASA is still waiting for Congress to vote on their budget.

14 Replies to “NASA Planetary Science Not Being Killed, Says NASA Official”

  1. I guess, just like the web, not everything you see posted in a newspaper is “true?”.

    I am sure the WH got blasted with comments. The WT article was widebanded pretty quickly, among those of us that follow various planetary programs.

  2. And isn’t it interesting that the article appeared in the Washington Times, one of the most conservative publications in America?

    1. The Washington Times is not reliable. It is about as reliable as getting science reports from Faux News.


      1. LC: My point exactly. My comment was entirely tongue in cheek, as of course a conservatively slanted publication will spread falsehoods about Obama at every opportunity.

  3. I expected the worst, and now that it’s confirmed not true I’m extremely relieved. Alright Obama, you’re off the hook for now.

  4. We recently wrote a short post about Neptune at Lofty Ambitions, which also includes a couple of videos we found on YouTube. Planetary science seems important not only for the science and deeper understanding of what surrounds us but also because it’s a way for kids to get interested in bigger questions and the stuff beyond our immediate experiences. If you want to read our post, you can find it here:

  5. Nancy, You cited Zubrin’s critique of VASIMR as an example of his using an article to generate publicity. But some of his VASIMR criticisms were valid. For example using a fantasy power supply with an unbelievable specific power.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if Zubrin was using the Washington Times article for advertising. But why would he make an unfounded accusation? If it turns out to be a false alarm, that will be a public relations disaster for him. Destroying his credibility to advertise a symposium would be bizarre behavior, even for Zubrin.

    1. They were valid, but not of the validity Zubrin implicitly claimed.

      – Not having access to light nuclear reactors would remove the a days trip time to Mars but it wouldn’t put Hohmann transfer orbits back. Instead VASIMR could still be used to cut the trip time to weeks AFAIU and circumvent the radiation problem.

      And of course VASIMR have other suggested uses, stabilizing ISS height being the first project. So The Mars Society calling VASIMR a hoax, so prompted by Zubrinä’s suggestion in his article, is itself a hoax.

      – Zubrin suggests IIRC comparable accumulated doses as a Mars trip has been endured by orbiting astronauts and being reasonable enough. But a little arithmetic shows he isn’t correct, the doses are likely incapacitating if not deadly, and that he dismiss deadly CMEs that LEO orbits are shielded from.*

      Therefore a VASIMR circumvents a standing, potentially no-go, problem.

      I would say that Zubrin, which I never have read before, destroyed his a priori credibility with me. And I am a layman. How do you think the experts took his buffoonery to push his special agenda?

      So Zubrin is to all appearances not terribly interested in credibility but pushing agendas. This fits what we see here, and a repeat behavior are, um, the norm =D in such cases.

      If I am a bit vague, it is because I did these estimates at the time, and I’m on my first cup of coffee for today. So I can not access a clear memory or good reference right now. I am sure I put the estimates out there, so I should be able to retrieve or redo them.

      1. “Instead VASIMR could still be used to cut the trip time to weeks AFAIU and circumvent the radiation problem.”

        Weeks? The 39 day trip to Mars is based on a specific power of 2kWe/kg. Which isn’t doable.

        A VASIMR trip to Mars taking weeks is a hoax.

        From my point of view, Zubrin’s plan to colonize Mars in Apollo redux rockets compromised his credibility. There’s a number of things in his VASIMR criticisms that don’t seem right. But calling VASIMR a hoax doesn’t discredit him.

        I want to believe Zubrin is just crying wolf. But I remain anxious.

  6. While it’s probably not true that the Planetary Science Program is completely axed, it is likely that it will face cutbacks, as Nancy mentioned. I fear that the NASA budget cuts will ultimately mean that programs will be axed and humans will not get to Mars before I die.

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