April 17, 2012 By Sarah Rich
Bake sales and car washes are staples of cheerleading squads and marching bands. Can these fundraising pastimes also save NASA’s planetary exploration program from budget cuts?
But a group of nine universities and organizations are each planning a car wash and bake sale in a larger effort to bring attention to the financial condition of the space agency’s planetary exploration program. The events will take place June 9, and the participants are hoping to raise a little money for NASA along the way.
The fundraisers likely won’t come close to bridging the gap left by President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2013 budget request, which cuts NASA’s planetary exploration program by approximately $300 million, a 20 percent decrease to the program’s overall budget for one year. NASA’s Planetary Science Division budget would decrease in fiscal 2013 to $1.2 billion from a current $1.5 billion, according to the American Astronomical Society.
“These cuts will force NASA to cancel its plans for its most ambitious exploration missions, cancel collaborations with the European Space Agency (ESA) on the 2016 Mars Trace Gas Orbiter and the 2018 ExoMars rover, slash the Mars Exploration Program, cancel the Lunar Quest Program, delay the very successful Discovery and New Frontiers competitive programs, and force cuts in mission operations and data analysis for several current missions, reducing the science return on an investment already made by the taxpayers,” according to the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society.
Alan Stern, the former associate administrator who ran NASA’s science program, is leading the fundraiser to create public awareness. Stern also serves as the associate vice president for research and development at the Southwest Research Institute’s Space Science and Engineering Division, an organization participating in the fundraiser.
Faculty, students and employees from the participating groups ultimately will decide how much to charge customers at their car washes and bake sales, Stern said. The bigger goal is for the universities and organizations to send the money they raise to their state’s congressmen to show that NASA’s planetary exploration program needs to be restored.
“The cut was several hundred million dollars; car washes aren’t going to pay for that,” Stern said about the event planned for June 9. “And so our goal is to attract attention to the problem.”
Laura Seward, a doctoral student at the University of Central Florida (UCF) (one of the nine participating organizations), said the university depends on NASA’s planetary exploration program. NASA’s ongoing work directly and indirectly sustains planetary science research conducted at UFC. Budget cuts at NASA could reduce the number of university students hired to do NASA’s research.
“The planetary science budget cuts that were proposed for the fiscal year ’13 budget that were just put out a month or so ago would really devastate all of planetary science,” Seward said. “The entire community is behind gathering around and trying to rally for the return of all or at least some of the budget that planetary science has had in the past at NASA.”
Seward said doctoral students like herself from UCF would have less of a chance of getting hired by NASA after graduating.
UCF isn’t alone in its concern. At the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), students and researchers will experience similar problems if NASA’s budget is slashed, said Michaela Shopland, a science outreach coordinator at the university who is helping UCLA participate in the fundraiser. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is located near UCLA and is closely affiliated with the school.
“NASA planetary science has a big impact on us here at UCLA,” Shopland said. “We’re close to JPL so we have strong ties with them. Many of the people who graduate here and do planetary science Ph.D.s will end up working at JPL, and there’s a lot of back and forth between the researchers there and the researchers here. But just within UCLA, we have a number of people who are involved directly with NASA missions.”
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