One year ago this week, the men and women of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory succeeded in doing what they do best — making the impossible look easy — when they brought the Curiosity rover to a perfect landing on the surface of Mars. Plenty could have gone wrong, and there was a sense in the control room that evening that the future of America's robotic exploration of the solar system might just depend on a flawless touchdown.
Now, after a year of surface operations, Curiosity has embarked on a long drive to the base of Mount Sharp and project scientists are ebullient about the rover's progress and with its revelations about Mars' past habitability. NASA officials seemingly shared their enthusiasm and last fall announced that a follow-on to Curiosity would be launched in 2020 to continue to search for life and, we expect, to collect a sample for later return to Earth.
But the amazing pictures and the public pronouncements hide an ugly truth — that the nation's planetary science program has been under sustained attack from White House budget cutters and remains in jeopardy.
One might think that the latest round of draconian cuts are driven by reductions to the federal budget — and, in turn, to NASA's budget — necessary to reduce our debt and deficit. But that isn't the case. To the president's credit, NASA's overall budget hasn't been targeted and remains largely flat, a signal achievement when domestic discretionary spending is at its lowest levels since the Eisenhower Administration. Instead, time and again, deficit hawks in the Office of Management and Budget have targeted specific parts of the NASA portfolio for disproportionate cuts, and none more so than arguably the most successful of all NASA's recent achievements — planetary science.
And for whatever reason, the "crown jewel" of the planetary science program, Mars, is in the crosshairs and the men and women of JPL know it. Last year, as a way to highlight the budget cuts, some workers hosted a bake sale, and in an effort to cut back nonessential programs and activities in the wake of sequestration, popular outreach programs like the JPL's annual open house have been cancelled, as have visits to classrooms and other educational activities.
But the planetary science community and its allies in Congress have fought back, and despite all of the partisan rancor in Washington these days, exploring our solar system is something that Democrats and Republicans in both the House and the Senate continue to agree on. We have succeeded in reversing cuts to the 2013 budget, even as the White House doubled down on its efforts to gut one of the most successful scientific endeavors in human history.
Just last month, the House Appropriations Committee passed a Fiscal Year 2014 spending package that included $1.315 billion for planetary science, almost $100 million above what the administration had requested. And the good news is that almost all of the money that was restored will be poured into the planetary science budget, which will include funding for future missions.
This goes a long way toward plugging the hole left by the administration's budget, and will allow NASA to begin important work on the 2020 rover, as well as a mission to Jupiter and its fascinating moon, Europa.
Some in Washington have questioned why funding these missions is such a priority in an era of austerity and deficits. Plainly, the bureaucrats at OMB think the search for life on other planets to be an expensive, quixotic and dispensable activity.
The answer is simple: These missions preserve America's edge in a host of technologies that are key to maintaining our global leadership. Profoundly important research and development and all the economic benefits it brings will be forsaken if we abandon the field. And without the excitement generated by these missions, our ability to attract a new generation of American students to choose scientific and technical careers will be seriously impaired.
Without these missions to work on, the incredibly talented engineers and scientists who work at JPL will move on to private industry or, in some cases, to other nations' space programs. And once that talent pool has dispersed, it will be extremely difficult to reconstitute. America will step back from its place of preeminence in planetary science, with Russia, China and Europe leading the next charge into space.
Planetary science is about seeking the answers to questions as old as mankind — and perhaps older. Are we alone? What is the nature of the universe and our place in it? Americans come from a long line of explorers: Are we really content to take a back seat now?
Not while Curiosity is alive and well — on Mars and at home.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., sits on the Appropriations Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives.