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
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT