NASA’s JPL Lays Off Hundreds of Workers

NASA's JPL announced a quick reduction in its workforce, putting missions like Mars Sample Return in jeopardy. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

In a disheartening turn of events, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has announced that it’s laying off about 8% of its workforce. That means that about 530 JPL employees will be let go, along with about 40 employees of the Lab’s contractors. That sucks for the people being let go, but the bigger concern for the rest of us is what will happen to upcoming missions like Mars Sample Return (MSR)?

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What’s Going on With the Mars Sample Return Mission?

The ESA/NASA Mars Sample Return will be one of the most complex missions ever devised. Image Credit: ESA

Anybody with a modicum of intellectual curiosity is looking forward to the NASA/ESA Mars Sample Return Mission. NASA’s Perseverance rover is busily collecting and caching samples for eventual return to Earth. While the technical and engineering challenges in getting those samples into scientists’ hands here on Earth are formidable, budgeting and funding might be the mission’s biggest headaches.

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Will Space Play in the 2016 US Election?

It might be only March of 2015, but the race (slog?) is on to be the next president of the United States. Only 589 days to go! It’s a race that some believe will cost the nation upwards of five billion dollars; that’s about 7.5 Mars missions for those of you out there counting. The campaign, though, is more than just a vehicle for terrible campaign ads and embarrassing debate gaffes; it’s also one of the few opportunities for the country to have a discussion about its  national priorities in the coming years. So, what are the chances that the exploration of space will be in that discussion?

Scientific research is a low priority for most Americans. Credit: Pew Research Center
Scientific research is a low priority for most Americans. Credit: Pew Research Center

On the surface, the odds don’t seem that favorable. Back in January, the Pew Research Center surveyed Americans to determine which issues citizens felt their leaders should be prioritizing. Space exploration wasn’t called out as its own topic, but of the 23 possibilities considered by Pew, “scientific research” was ranked third-to-last, representing a priority for just over half of Democrats and a third of Republicans. The margin of error for the smallest subgroup was 6.1 percentage points. The poll shows that the public is as concerned as ever with the perennial “big issues”: the War on Terror, the economy and jobs, and social services like education and Social Security. These will undoubtedly dominate the national conversation and leave little room for discussion of our scientific priorities. And, even if science does see the light of day during the campaign, politicians tend to look for places of disagreement. As NASA remains one of the government agencies most favored by citizens, it’s not likely to stir up much trouble here either.

Peer a little closer, though, and many potential candidates have strong ties to the space exploration industry. Headlining this group is the only high-profile contender to have officially declared himself: Senator Ted Cruz (R, TX). Sen. Cruz is the new chairman of the Space, Science, and Competitiveness subcommittee, the Senate body which oversees NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Joining him on the subcommittee is another likely presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R, FL). Florida, of course, is home to Kennedy Space Center, the launch complex for most US space activities. The economic impact of the so-called “Space Coast” puts space exploration at the forefront of Florida politicians’ minds and the state was also formerly lead by yet another likely Republican presidential candidate, Gov. Jeb Bush.

On the Democratic side, the picture remains much murkier. With no one so far willing to declare themselves running while former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remains on the fence, the need for speculation is much higher. But, both Secretary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden ran campaigns in 2008, offering us a glimpse at how space might play in their future endeavors. Then-Senator Biden had little to say on space during his campaign, although he did advocate for working with China as an equal partner, a view that might still draw some criticism today. Then-Senator Clinton spoke more broadly on her views for space, but it never truly entered the mainstream of the debate.

Disagreement between Democrats and Republicans is highest among scientific issues. Credit: Pew Research Center
Disagreement between Democrats and Republicans is highest among scientific issues. Credit: Pew Research Center

Even if space exploration doesn’t become a central issue of the coming campaign, it could well leak in from another direction: climate change. NASA is at the forefront of climate science research and considers it a core tenet of its research mandate. During the 2008 campaign, Clinton supported the expansion of NASA’s Earth observing program. Earlier this month, Sen. Cruz took the opposite position, suggesting to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden that the agency focus more on exploring outer space and less on studying the Earth. With climate change likely to become a flashpoint during the campaign (the Pew poll discussed above shows climate science research is a priority for 54% of Democrats, but just 15% of Republicans), NASA and the NSF might find themselves dragged into the larger fight.

Finally, what about all the candidates down the ballot? Will space exploration be important in House, Senate, and gubernatorial races? What about the myriad of local and state elections? The answer here is probably a more definitive “no.” Unlike most other issues, space exploration is one that resides virtually solely at the federal level. With the possible exception of a few space-heavy regions like Florida and Texas, issues like education, unemployment, and taxation are far more likely to dominate the conversation.

If there’s one truth about elections, however, it’s that you never really know if something will be important until it happens. With that in mind, we’ll continue to keep an eye on the coming races to see if outer space become a down-to-Earth issue!

Casting Swords into Space Observatories

Earth as seen from lunar orbit. Credit: NASA


Editor’s note – Bruce Dorminey is a science journalist and author of Distant Wanderers: The Search for Planets beyond the Solar System.

Planet hunter extraordinaire Geoff Marcy recently let his frustration surface about the current state of the search for other habitable solar systems. Despite the phenomenal planet-finding success of NASA’s Kepler mission, Marcy, an astronomer at the University of California at Berkeley, correctly pointed out that NASA budget cuts have severely hampered the hunt for extrasolar life.

A decade ago, only a few dozen extrasolar planets had been detected. Today, by some recent gravitational microlensing estimates, there are more planets than stars in the Milky Way. But without the ability to characterize these extrasolar planetary atmospheres from space, we are astrobiologically hamstrung.

NASA’s goal had been that by 2020, we would have a pretty good idea about how frequently terrestrial Earth-mass planets orbit other stars — whether those planets have atmospheres that resemble our own; and, more crucially, whether those atmospheres exhibit the telltale signs of planets harboring life.

But consider how the federal government spends our tax dollars on a daily basis. Each and every day for more than a decade, the U.S. military spent roughly $1 billion a day funding congressionally-undeclared wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In contrast, NASA’s cancelled SIM and TPF missions were both originally estimated to have cost less than $1.5 billion dollars each.

Artist concept of the now-cancelled Terrestrial Planet Finder mission. Credit: NASA

SIM, the Space Interferometry Mission, was to have focused on finding extrasolar earths in a targeted search; its follow-on mission, NASA’s TPF, the Terrestrial Planet Finder mission, was to have characterized the atmospheres of these earth twins in an attempt to remotely detect the signatures of life.

The astronomical community continues to be resourceful as it can in working around these problems. But if NASA had followed through with the SIM and TPF missions in the timeframe that it first announced, we would have a very good idea of our own earth’s galactic pecking order by now.

Instead, war-funding has taken priority. On the home front, we’ve let the attacks of 9/11 take us down a road that has resulted in our airports resembling Orwellian netherworlds. Most of us now accept that we must basically disrobe and be physically prodded before boarding an aircraft.

Kids born at the beginning of what was supposed to be a great new millennium — remember 2001: A Space Odyssey, anyone? — have instead grown up accustomed to running the gauntlet just to take their teddy bears onto the plane with them.

Contrast the country’s current poisoned national mood with the heady days of euphoria surrounding this country’s Moon shots.

Dare we attempt to again turn at least a portion of our swords back into ploughshares?

If the U.S. is going to continue to lead the world in science and technology, the country will have to quit living in a state of perpetual geopolitical paranoia and take space seriously again.

No one wants to turn a blind eye to our national defense and NASA may never return to its glory days. But something is amiss when within a generation, we’ve gone from John F. Kennedy pointedly challenging the nation to test its mettle by safely sending a man to the moon and back before the end of the decade to this current era of national teeth gnashing.

Newt Gingrich was openly ridiculed on the morning TV news shows for advocating that the U.S. use private enterprise to help us put a manned lunar colony on the moon. Mitt Romney responded that he’d fire any employee that walked into his office and suggested such a plan.

Perhaps Gingrich is not the ideal messenger for jumpstarting a long dormant manned lunar program. But our country has reached a sad nadir when a presidential candidate is publicly mocked for advocating the hard work of boldly revamping our national space policy.

Op-Ed: Lunar Twitter — Republicans Debate Manned Moon Base

Artist concept of a base on the Moon. Credit: NASA, via Wikipedia


Editor’s note – Bruce Dorminey, science journalist and author of Distant Wanderers: The search for Planets beyond the Solar System, is a lifelong proponent of lunar exploration.

Newt Gingrich certainly has his own political motives for suddenly deciding that now is the time to see that the decades-long dream of a lunar base finally makes it to fruition. But in addressing the issue of the U.S.’ future role in space, he arguably gave the most informed answer of anyone on stage at Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate in Jacksonville, Florida.

Mitt Romney’s measured response of first consulting with an interdisciplinary group of academics, captains of industry and the military, seemed to leave out NASA itself. But he was right in acknowledging that whatever the country’s next move in manned spaceflight might be, it should be tempered with some realistic rate of commercial and industrial return on America’s investment.

Gingrich seems better versed in the hardware and specifics of what’s needed for a manned return to the moon. But Romney’s admonition to Gingrich about making politically-expedient campaign promises simply to placate Florida’s Spacecoast also rings true.

While it’s heartening that America’s future role in space is being discussed in such high profile public forums, the last thing the U.S. needs is for a presidential candidate to wantonly raise the issue of finally realizing the dream of a manned lunar base in a cynical attempt to lure Florida voters in the space industry.

But given the current level of private space entrepreneurship, Romney’s own admonition that a lunar base would likely cost hundreds of billions of dollars seems a bit out of touch.
While it’s true that the international space station turned into a $100 billion financial behemoth, Gingrich’s ideas about adapting existing Atlas V launcher technology for a return manned trip to the moon sounds interesting, if not altogether feasible.

And he struck the right note when he acknowledged the need for entrepreneurial involvement from the get-go. A public-private partnership, with emphasis on commercial technology spin-offs, might be the needed tonic to restart a serious lunar effort.

A few $50 million prizes for Moon-minded, space entrepreneurs would go a long way in jumpstarting innovation while bringing down costs.

Depiction of possible Lunar Base. Credit: NASA

This whole manned lunar colony issue is likely to be largely forgotten after next Tuesday’s Florida primary, but some version of it will come up again at this summer’s political conventions and again in the general election debates next Fall.

Let’s just hope that when it does, it prompts a national discussion on NASA’s role in the 21st century; and how in these financially-strapped times, the U.S. can mount a manned mission back to the Moon, to an asteroid or even on to Mars in a realistic way.

There also needs to be a serious rethink of how NASA selects and then funds its missions. As any science journalist can attest, too often whole NASA missions are scrapped only months before launch; or launches are rescheduled so many times that the space agency begins to lose credibility with its own proponents. Just who’s to ultimately blame for the current state of affairs is hard to pinpoint. But serious astronomers and space researchers can hardly be thrilled about how such projects are currently funded and implemented.

Unfortunately, the general public is largely out of the loop when it comes to understanding the vagaries of NASA funding. The public’s limited exposure to national space policy nowadays mostly comes in the form of politicians on the campaign stump. There, political candidates use the same hackneyed catchphrases about exploring our “final frontier” just a little too often to evoke any real goosebumps.

But if the U.S. is to maintain its national identity as the world’s premier technological power, it needs to make sure that space is part of that equation. The byproducts of its generation and social media gurus are a marvel. But a Twitter from a South Pole lunar base would inspire the world.

Newt Promises a Moon Base by 2020

Newt Gingrich.


US Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich campaigned in Florida on Wednesday, and made some audacious claims if he would become President of the United States: “By the end of my second term we will have the first permanent base on the Moon and it will be American,” Gingrich said.

He also said that near-Earth space would be busy with launches by that same time frame – with “five or eight” launches a day, for space tourism and manufacturing, and that a new propulsion system would allow astronauts to get to Mars quickly and efficiently. The Space Coast crowd was captivated.

But how Gingrich would convince a future Congress to go along with what certainly would be an expensive proposition? President Obama couldn’t even convince Congress to give NASA an extra $6 billion over five years, and instead NASA’s budget has remained flat, without the big boost in technology development and science the current President was hoping for.

At a later space industry round-table discussion with Gingrich, one person commented that there are “no true space advocates in Congress, just members protecting their NASA centers and space pork.” Gingrich replied: “A good president doesn’t negotiate with Congress. He negotiates with the people, then the people negotiate with Congress.”

Even though Gingrich appears to support NASA, during the earlier rally, he also possibly indicated that he might cut NASA’s budget, saying he thinks NASA should become “lean and aggressive,” and less bureaucratic.

The former Speaker of the House of Representatives said he would support tax-free prizes, devoting 10% of NASA’s budget for entrepreneurial prizes of the kind that spurred Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic (even though the current Congress nixed a recent similar proposal for NASA’s Office of Technology), and definitely outlined a nationalistic, US-only vision for space exploration, saying “we clearly have the capacity that Chinese and the Russians will never come anywhere close to us,” and “I accept the charge that I am an American, and Americans are instinctively grandiose, because we believe in a bigger future.”

Gingrich’s biggest Republican opponent at the moment is Mitt Romney, and Romney has ridiculed Gingrich for his Moon base plans. Gingrich even referenced a previous idea he had as “weird.”

“At one point early in my career I introduced the Northwest Ordinance in Space,” Gingrich said, where once there were “13,000 Americans living on the moon, they could petition to become a state.”

Reports from Florida say that Romney will unveil his plans for NASA later this week. The Republican Primary in Florida is on January 31.