Planetary Research: More Budget Squeeze

Article excerpt

When the Reagan administration's proposed fiscal year (FY) 1986 budget for NASA was announced in early February, surprised space scientists noted that for the first time in four years it included more money for the analysis of planetary data than Congress had approved the year before (SN: 2/9/85, p. 86). The percentage increase was small -- less than the inflation rate -- but it seemed to symbolize a change from the situation in 1981-82, when some researchers were wondering if NASA's whole planetary exploration program was about to come to an end. The tide, for FY 86, appeared to be turning.

Reentering the fray, however, is the issue of the federal deficit, highlighted by the raging congressional conflict about cuts in social security versus cuts in defense spending. An added factor has been House and Senate bills that would freeze spending for FY 86 at FY 85 levels. And this month, a letter from University of Arizona scientist Laurel Wilkening, chairperson of the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences, presented the membership with a view very different from a turning tide: "The NASA budget is in trouble," she wrote, "and the NASA planetary exploration program once again stands in danger of being decimated."

Budget worries are an annual affair. But the planetary science community carries a particularly vivid memory of the time, barely three years ago, when rampant rumors, leaks and other unofficial information sources raised the possibility that NASA's whole planetary exploration program might simply be shut down. And the House of Representatives' vote about two months ago in favor of a government-wide freeze has raised at least a version of the same specter again. …