Skip to main content

Don't gut NASA space missions

By Janet Vertesi
updated 11:10 AM EST, Sat December 14, 2013
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
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT