"A couple of weeks ago we were fighting to get a mission to Halley's comet," says Louis Friedman, director of the Planetary Society. "Now we're fighting for the entire (unmanned) program."
The space program, which gave us those colorful photos of Jupiter and Saturn, has already been slowed by budget cuts. Now the unmanned phase could be terminated by the White House in its attempt to balance the budget, planetary scientists say.
The issue currently is being debated behind close doors between officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the budget-shaping Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
The small community of US planetary scientists, gathered for their annual meeting in Pittsburgh this week, have been trying to marshal themselves to resist this new and unexpected twist of the fiscal vise.
The Division of Planetary Society held a press conference Oct. 13 to express its concern and opposition to the possible "extinction" of the planetary program. The two groups are also sending a joint letter to presidential adviser Edwin Meese III listing their concerns.
The unmanned planetary program is at risk because the Reagan administration would like to squeeze another $367 million out of NASA in fiscal year 1982 and $ 1.1 billion in 1983. This comes after a decade of steadily declining budgets in real dollars. Also, the White House wants these savings without touching the space shuttle program, which currently is consuming the lion's share of the space agency's budget. This means that other programs must be cut deeply. In the first round of budget cuts, the overall NASA budget was nicked 10 percent, while the Office of Space Science sustained a 20 percent reduction. The second-round cuts would take another 15 percent.
Although NASA officials are refusing to comment on the delicate budget negotiations, planetary scientists believe that the administration proposals, if enacted, would wipe out the entire planetary program. That would include:
* Canceling the only new mission under development -- Galileo, an orbiter and probe to Jupiter -- even though $300 million already has ben spent on it.
* Shutting down the Voyager II spacecraft which, with its twin, has sent back the best views yet of Jupiter and Saturn in the past two years, and is targeted to fly by Uranus in 1986. It would simply be turned off along with other existing probes scattered through the solar system.
* Not sending a US spacecraft to inspect Halley's comet when it comes near Earth in 1986. Western Europe, the Soviet Union, and Japan all are planning projects.
* Cutting off money to support the analysis of scientific data already collected on other plants.
* Ending planning efforts for future missions.
Further, the planetary scientist argue that the current program is being run by a team with considerable and irreplaceable experience. If the program is cut back beyond a certain critical point and the team disbanded, they say, the planetary program will be eliminated in fact, if not in name.
"Given its tremendous boost to national pride and prestige, many people don't realize that the entire planetary program uses only 3 percent of NASA's budget, and all NASA is less than 1 percent of the federal budget. Yet this highly successful effort is to undergo more than a belt-tightening. It may be killed outright," says David Morrison, chairman of the DPS, sounding the basic theme that space scientist and other supporters of planetary exploration are using in their lobbying efforts.
The intense budgetary pressure on the tiny program has many scientist puzzled. "It seems weird to me. Our fields is vital and scientifically fruitful. The public is excited about what we are doing. It's so cheap. Yet the politicians keep clamping down on it," Richard Greenberg of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz., comments.
The planetary scientists hope that the administration will pull back when it realizes the drastic consequences of the cutbacks. In a meeting at NASA headquarters last week, the planetary program reportedly was given a reprieve, a final decision on its fate temporarily postponed. But if the White House does not relent, the planetary scientists say, they will enter the fray on Capitol Hill.