Fri November 22, 2013
Budget Cuts Leave Curiosity and Cassini in Limbo
IRA FLATOW, HOST:
This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Touchdown confirmed. We're safe on Mars.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
FLATOW: You remember that video from mission control, when Curiosity landed on Mars last August? It was pretty exciting, not to mention all those fabulous photos and the data being sent back from the Red Planet. But how would you feel if they flipped off the switch to that Mars mission? Or they powered down the Cassini mission to Saturn? Did you see that fabulous photo Cassini sent back last week? Believe it or not, budget cuts at NASA may force the top brass over there to have to choose between the two which one to shut off, eenie-meenie.
How much does it cost to run these missions, anyhow? What discoveries might we miss out if we abandon these missions? Can't we tradeoff something else? What do you think? Our number is 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri. Adam Mann is a space and physics reporter at Wired magazine in San Francisco. He joins us from KQED. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Adam.
ADAM MANN: Hi, there. Pleasure to be here.
FLATOW: Just a little - is this a little new to you too?
MANN: NASA's budget issues? No.
MANN: They've been having those for a while.
FLATOW: Well, what is the problem here? I mean, is it really that - is it so expensive to keep them both going?
MANN: You know, it's - they're each around 50 million a year. Curiosity is about 50 million a year and Cassini, to run it is about 60 million a year. That is a large amount of money to somebody like you or me, I guess. But to NASA, that's not really all that much. They're working with a nearly $17 billion budget.
FLATOW: Wow. And so I won't even go down to the percentage points...
FLATOW: ...the paperclips story, you know, where that would - and so who will make the decision, and is this a real decision that they're thinking about doing now?
MANN: Well, it's definitely something that they're looking at in the future. Next year, NASA has to do what's called a senior review, where they take a look at all of their missions that have finished with their primary mission and are now in their extended mission. So, right now, Curiosity is in its primary mission. Actually, it's still got another year left of that. But, come 2015, it will also be in an extended mission. Cassini is in an extended mission.
And so periodically, NASA likes to check in and say, OK, are these extended missions still worth it? And considering that they are getting a budget squeeze right now, they say at NASA that flat is the new up, meaning that they used to get more money every year, and now they just sort of flat-lined. So, yeah, it could potentially be a very real choice there.
FLATOW: So the problem is these robots performed too well. They're still alive.
MANN: Yeah. Yeah. That's definitely where it's at.
FLATOW: What about Voyager? Voyager's been gone, what, for 40 years, something like that? Is it budget - it's still work - it's still going. Is it in a risk?
MANN: It's still going. I think it's got five or maybe even 10 more years.
FLATOW: Is it at risk of being cut?
MANN: I don't think so. The budget for Voyager, I don't know it off the top of my head, actually, but it's much less. It's mostly that Cassini and Curiosity are the big-ticket items here. Their budgets are, I think, the biggest of the extended missions. And so they're sort of in a head-to-head competition, unfortunately.
FLATOW: Well, what kind of missions could Cassini do if it's allowed to go on? What's on its plate?
MANN: There's definitely still a lot to explore at Saturn. Right now - so when the mission arrived in 2004, it was sort of late winter at Saturn. But we never had a mission that sort of stayed at Saturn before. Voyagers 1 and 2 just sort of flew by real quick and they spent, you know, a few days a week there. But Cassini has been able to watch the seasons change on Saturn. So we've watched it actually go from mid-winter to spring. And now we're entering summer.
And we want to see what kinds of things happen to the planet out there as it goes into summer, both - Saturn itself. But also, it's got a lot of really cool interesting moons that are changing right now as the seasons change. And if we don't do it now, you know, even if we send a mission tomorrow or something like that, summer doesn't come around again on Saturn for 30 years. So we would literally lose this once-in-a-generation opportunity.
FLATOW: And what about Curiosity that's just chugging away there on Mars? Isn't in heading toward Mount Sharp and...
MANN: Yeah. Curiosity is going to the base of Mount Sharp there, looking at some, like mazes and plateaus near the bottom. And they've got to figure out a way to get it - get a path through those things and get it up the mountain. So it's still going with that. That's, again, part of its primary mission.
MANN: But it won't be until its extended mission when it's actually probably on the mountain, and they're trying to figure out what else they can do with it that this becomes an issue.
FLATOW: That would be, what, 2019, 2017?
FLATOW: So it's not going to be just as it's get there, they turn the switch off on it.
MANN: Yeah. I mean, you know, when it comes to Curiosity, Curiosity is very well beloved by both NASA and, I think, the general public. It would seem really, really hard for NASA to make the choice to shut off Curiosity. It's a much newer mission. It potentially has years, decades possibly, you know, left. Opportunity landed there. It's supposed to have a three-month mission. It's been there 10 years.
So Cassini is a much older mission. It's been around already 10 years. It's actually only got until 2017 when its fuel runs out. In a head-to-head competition, a lot of people think that Cassini is definitely the one that loses.
FLATOW: Well, that's the last of the super, giant, expensive probes, isn't it, that had everything going?
MANN: Right. Yeah.
FLATOW: And it's proving it's worth right now (unintelligible)
MANN: Yeah. That picture you mentioned was on the cover of the New York Times.
FLATOW: Yeah. Can you - what is competing for that money? Why, you know, why is there - what is going to - I don't want to say suck the money away from those missions, but what is - what's in NASA's program that's going to suck that money away from the missions of those?
MANN: It's nothing in particular. I mean, it's a fact that NASA is getting squeezed. Like I said, again, they used to get a little bit more money every year. And they would say, OK, well, now we can do this extra mission or we can put it in research and development on this thing. But as the budget stays flat and actually with the effects of sequestration, it starts to go down a little bit in the out years, NASA just has to look at its portfolio and prioritize.
They want to build a huge, expensive rocket that's supposed to take people to an asteroid one day or maybe the moon or Mars. They want to do tons of other missions. We've got lots of things planned for Mars, especially. There's going to be a twin rover on - twin rover to Curiosity on Mars in 2020, hopefully. So lots of things like that.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to the phones, 1-800-989-8255. Michael in Provo, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
MICHAEL: Hey, thanks.
FLATOW: Hey there.
MICHAEL: I was just thinking a lot of people are turning science projects over to communities of interested people. And it would be a way to save money if you had a bunch of hobbyists or amateur scientists who will be able to select missions.
MANN: Yeah, definitely. Call NASA. Tell them.
FLATOW: Well, why not - thank you. Why not crowd source the money, you know? See if you could...
MANN: Yeah. I mean, you know, on something like Kickstarter?
MANN: $60 million, I think, in - it would be actually two years' worth, so $120 million of crowd source money is pretty hard, I would think, at least.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's take another call from Theodore in Sacramento. Hi, Theodora.
THEODORE: Hello. I'm wondering if either of these missions were shut down, would it be possible to start them back up if you got the money later?
MANN: Potentially with Curiosity, maybe, yeah, you could put it to sleep. It's got a nuclear battery that's going to last a long time. Cassini has its fuel that's going to run out, and I don't think we can just sort of park it for a while and then turn it back on.
FLATOW: Theodore, what do you think about this?
THEODORE: Hmm, well, I guess if you can - if you could restart Curiosity, maybe that would be the one to turn off.
FLATOW: Hmm. Would you be willing to give up one of those big space plans, those big rocket ships, maybe one, and keep this going?
THEODORE: I don't know really.
FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. OK. Thanks for calling.
FLATOW: Have a happy holiday. What about SpaceX? Does SpaceX and private space companies affect the budget here?
MANN: They're unfortunately part of the squeeze or as NASA goes down, some of these private space companies get affected by it. NASA has something like - it's been funding these private these companies, in particular SpaceX. They've had a budget of about 500 million a year for them. But as NASA's budget gets - goes down, Congress doesn't really want to put extra money into these other things. And so, yeah, they're probably feeling some of the pain as well.
FLATOW: I mean, when you look at the absolute figures, 50, $60 million, it doesn't really seem like a lot of money.
MANN: It's something like a rounding error in the federal budget, probably.
FLATOW: And it almost seems like there's something else going on here, you know? Why couldn't they find - scrape this, scrape that together? Is it that they want to get out of this business, you know, this kind of space probe business? Would it take away from future things that are happening? Any politics involved on that?
MANN: Yeah. There's definitely a lot of politics involved. I mean, you know, the NASA budget, in order to understand it, you probably need to be a rocket scientist, I guess, just because of everything that goes into it and all of the various people that are involved. You know, Congress is not a scientific body, so they're not going to make their choices necessarily based on what is going to be the maximum science value. They want their constituencies to have money.
And NASA has a lot of centers, sort of, all over the United States, and so those congressmen in particular - congress people in particular - are the ones who are involved in making these decisions. And they want to make sure that their particular local agency is going to have contracts, is going to have employment. They don't want to see their people fired.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Adam Mann, who is space and physics reporter at Wired magazine in San Francisco. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones. Let's go to Colorado, Longmont. Christine(ph), hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
CHRISTINE: Hi, Ira. My husband is an imaging scientist who has been working on Cassini for all these long years, and that's one reason I want it to be funded. But the more important reason is I'm an elementary school teacher, and I brought in pictures and images and cast-out free bookmarks and talked Cassini up to the kids and told them so many things about (unintelligible), having volcanoes and all kinds of cool things. So I really want Cassini.
FLATOW: It's a beautiful machine.
MANN: That's so good to hear.
CHRISTINE: It really is. And it's only going to be around for a little while longer, so I hope that NASA holds on to it.
FLATOW: And maybe we really need some Wall Street guy to give up his bonus this Christmas...
FLATOW: ...and its get funded again. All right. Thanks, Christine. Good luck to you. Thank you.
CHRISTINE: Thank you.
FLATOW: Thanks for your work. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Chuck in Upper Marlboro.
CHUCK: Hi. I'm glad.
FLATOW: Hey, there.
CHUCK: Hi. Just a brief idea. I don't know if they can (unintelligible) at NASA and consider maybe transferring either of the programs to another space agency like in India or Europe.
FLATOW: Now, there's an idea.
FLATOW: Outsource it or get somebody who can do it cheaper, cheaper, keep it going.
CHUCK: Right. Yeah. It seems like there's so much valuable information they can still give us. It'd be a shame to lose either one.
FLATOW: Hmm. Nah, that's never going to happen.
FLATOW: Adam, what do you think? Is it possible?
MANN: It is possible. You know, NASA has one of the biggest space agency budgets of any country, basically. You know, India was able to sent a probe. They just launched a probe to Mars for a fraction of what we do. I think, maybe like a tenth or something like that. Whether or not you could just transfer that straight off, you know, do the scientists then have to go to Europe or to India in order to continue working and getting paid like - I don't know. That's a good question.
FLATOW: Why not bring the scientists over here, you know?
MANN: And then everything is just through some other countries?
FLATOW: Yeah. They just - yeah. Well, they - it becomes their project. They get the data. They get the results.
FLATOW: They get the kudos. They get the photos. They get the publicity. They get, you know, all the good benefits that come from it. Their kids will get the educational materials.
Well, not to mention the...
Their kids will get to learn about it...
MANN: ...creative ideas.
FLATOW: ...you know. And they - for that kind of money, you've go the investment sunk in. The capitals are already sunk into it. The hardware is already there. You're just taking over, you know, something that's running well.
MANN: Yeah. It's possible. I think that that would definitely something that NASA would have to discuss with its international partners. I don't know what, you know, they probably got a lot on their own plates. But...
FLATOW: Yeah. Well, we know they can't deal with China because there's a law against that, right, working with China?
MANN: Right. Yeah. That's the one country that we can't work with and would actually be - maybe the best country to do it because they would want the scientific prestige, and they have the money.
FLATOW: They certainly have that to take it over. But as you say, it's illegal for them to work with China. I don't know. It's just sort of - it seems like - wow. It seems like a shame. Who will - will it be the NASA administrator who makes this decision? That high up or somebody else takes the fall for it?
MANN: Hmm. I don't know. I mean, the senior review is sort of a committee process. And they go through everything and they punch up some report. It's a very bureaucratic, you know, institution. And this kind of stuff moves through things and through other things. It is probably does, at some point, come down to some administrator at NASA who has to say, this one or this one.
FLATOW: Well, maybe who's listening will give us all holiday present and write a check out to keep that - keep them going for a year or so.
MANN: Right. And I mean, members of the public can definitely write or call their members of Congress and urge them to maybe give a little bit more - throw a little bit more money at NASA if they want to see these kinds of missions going. So...
FLATOW: We'll find out. Thank you, Adam. It's a...
MANN: Thank you. A pleasure to be here.
FLATOW: ...an interesting article. Thanks for writing. Adam Mann is a space and physics reporter at Wired magazine. Have a happy holiday.
FLATOW: That's about all the time we have for this hour. Have a great holiday weekend. I'm Ira Flatow in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.