GIVE a cheer for the members of the Venus radar-mapping Magellan spacecraft team. They not only deserve it, they could use some encouragement right now.
No sooner did they rescue Magellan from a potentially crippling communications failure last month than they learned that their funding had been pulled out from under them. What's worse, no one in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which funds the mission, had warned them about the fine print in the Bush administration's requested fiscal 1993 budget.
Welcome to the "big" science versus "little" science budget battle.
NASA's budget request includes a generous 11 percent boost to $2.25 billion for space-station Freedom. But tough choices were made elsewhere to hold that request to $14.1 billion overall. That's a probably obtainable 2 percent increase over fiscal 1992, which barely compensates for inflation, if that. One choice was to "zero" Magellan funding.
Magellan team members, understandably, were stunned. Yet they are hardly alone in their distress. Scientists in other fields also face starvation as big glamorous programs soak up a lion's share of increasingly scarce government support.
For example, the administration's budget also asks for a 34 percent raise for the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) particle accelerator. That's an increase in authorized spending to a level of $650 million for the $8 billion dollar project. Physicists working in less favored fields know the pain Magellan scientists feel.
John Gibbons, director of the US Congress's Office of Technology Assessment, summed up the problem succinctly in a recent issue of The Scientist. Commenting on the administration's contention that giving more money to a big "leadership" project helps all science, he said, "I think that's nuts."
He explained that the aphorism may be true for the kind of megaprogram the Human Genome Project represents. Its effort to map the human genetic code is pursued through relatively small projects in many places. But Dr. Gibbons noted that "the SSC ... is not that way: Neither is the Space Station." He called them "great, giant chunks that are literally starving to death the little science that is part of the programs of those same agencies."
Gibbons noted, for example, that "the SSC has shut down small accelerators and starved condensed matter physics." Now one can add that Freedom station threatens to shut down prematurely a successful, still productive planetary mission.
If the Magellan team had permanently lost their data link with the spacecraft last month, they still could have taken pride in their achievements. By then, Magellan had completed all but one of its primary mission objectives. But controllers did restore communication. Now Magellan is conducting a new phase of mapping, gathering stereo pairs of radar pictures with which to construct three-dimensional views. In September, the team plans to tackle its remaining primary objective - a detailed survey of Venus
gravity that could reveal something of the planet's internal structure.
It's silly to cut Magellan funding at this point. The team would have to stop mapping in June and abandon the gravity survey just to save about $80 million.
Congress should restore Magellan's operating budget. And both Congress and the administration should rethink the wisdom of letting overzealous commitment to big projects stifle smaller but fruitful research programs.