The Bush administration has cut $3 billion from NASA’s science budget over the next five years, “postponing” (until who knows when) important science in favor of getting back to the moon (in more than twice the time it took to develop the program in the 60s) and then to Mars. This comes on the heels of earlier revelations of the evisceration of NASA’s grants budgets, the money that goes directly to individual scientists to do bread-and-butter astronomy research, funding postdocs, travel and computers.
Affected missions include big ticket items like the Joint Dark Energy Mission, which would search for the source driving the mysterious acceleration of the Universe, as well as satellites which would search for earth-like planets around stars in our own Galaxy.
The only science missions to survive being indefinitely postponed are the Hubble Telescope’s $300 Million upgrade, and its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope. All while NASA’s overall budget — paying for the Space Station, the Shuttle and the Moon and Mars shots — has actually gone up.
Back in the early 90s, the American physics community felt a sense of entitlement, and didn’t bother to make the case for the Superconducting Supercollider, and science in the US and worldwide lost a chance to explore the frontiers of high energy physics, a benchmark which won’t even really be reached with the opening of CERN’s LHC collider in 2007. But that’s not really what’s going on here, not to the same extent. Astronomers remain aware of the PR aspects to our work — we understand that no one would fund something so manifestly useless if so many people didn’t find it as fascinating, compelling and beautiful as we do. This is, instead, just the Bush administration reneging on its promises (again, and as in so many more important instances) to protect its science budget.
Update: meanwhile, PPARC in the UK is also cutting back on many of its science initiatives, too.