At first glance, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory doesn't look like one of the most innovative places on the planet.
Made in the 1960s-futurist style that gave rise to the image of Mr. Spock in a skin-tight body suit, the main buildings spurn right angles and classic brick, looking both out-of-date and vaguely ready for space travel themselves.
But through the efforts of scientists here, Americans have seen some of the most striking photos ever taken of our solar system: Pathfinder's images of the Martian landscape, Galileo's snapshots of what could be water on a Jovian moon.
The picture of JPL's future, however, is at best blurry. Proposed budget cuts in Congress last week left NASA, the lab's overseer, with $900 million less to spend. By the numbers, that's only 6 percent of the agency's $13.6 billion request, and other facilities could get hit harder than JPL, with its focus on unmanned exploration of the solar system.
But to many here, the cuts raise fresh concerns. Responding to repeated budget cuts this decade, scientists have followed the new NASA mantra of "faster, better, cheaper."
Now, they say, they've reached a breaking point. "We've gone about as far as we can go" with belt-tightening, says Larry Dumas, JPL's deputy director. "With [this proposed] cut, you'd just have to start cutting programs."
The cuts are not final - they face a vote by the full House next month, then by the Senate. And many in Congress will fight to restore funding to an agency seen as a model for doing a lot on a modest budget.
The days of billion-dollar probes the size of redwood trunks are gone, replaced by a host of economical microprojects relying on new technology and smaller vehicles. Take the MUSES-CN mission, for instance. Tabbed at $30 million, the program plans to land dictionary-size device on an asteroid in 2003 to take photos and samples.
Congressional budget trimmers acknowledge NASA's admirable austerity, but say new spending caps have left them with few choices: NASA, like most other agencies, must take its cuts. Housing and Urban Development got $2 billion less than it asked for. The AmeriCorps public-service program was canned entirely.
"This is not something we wanted to do ... but we must live within the [spending] agreements," says a congressional source who worked on the bill. Moreover, says the official, NASA has less lobbying clout than some agencies.
Public support for a costly space program is lukewarm. Approval of NASA remained high in a July Gallup poll, yet 34 percent of respondents said its spending should be reduced or terminated. Only 18 percent said its funding should be increased, and 45 percent wanted agency funding kept at the same level.
Scientists say they realize the need for responsible budgets, but say research requires fiscal stability. If a project gets cut one year, it's difficult to start it up later if more money comes through. Scientists head off to new jobs and projects.
"When you make sudden budget cuts, you are forced to take the cuts in things that are just starting," says Dumas, "so short-term cuts have long-term consequences."
Donald Yeomans's Deep Impact project is just starting, and he knows that if the budget stays as it is, he can say goodbye to the four-year-old mission to research a comet in unprecedented detail.
Dr. Yeomans has worked among JPL's eucalyptus and pines for more than 20 years, but it's hard to imagine him being more excited about any project he's worked on. Every foot of his office wall is plastered with posters of feather-tailed balls of cosmic detritus.
He says comets, leftovers from the formation of the solar system, could offer clues into the history of the cosmos. In addition, they must be better understood because they can slam into Earth with cataclysmic effect. And next century, they could become truck stops for interplanetary exploration.
Off on a comet
Still, "we know less about comets than we do about anything else in the solar system," Yeomans says. He explains how the Deep Impact probe will pull up beside comet Tempel 1 on July 4, 2005, and fire a six-foot-long copper slug. The slug will blow a crater seven stories deep and 100 yards wide, allowing the probe to photograph the comet's insides.
Now, barely a month after the project got the formal go-ahead from NASA, he wants to crunch numbers on his plug-in calculator, not contemplate the worst-case scenario.
"Even if these cuts are resolved, this sort of thing year after year gets demoralizing," he says.
Still, the belt-tightening has had some benefits. Designers are getting more innovative, and, in some cases, passing off projects that private industry is just as ready to do. Yet Yeomans says the time has come to draw a line.
"Things used to be a little more relaxed, not as much concern about downsizing, outsourcing, and budget cuts. That's good and bad," he says. "People are doing a lot more with a lot less, but it's taking its toll. Some people are getting burned out."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society