This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable
Janet VertesiBack to OpinionJanet Vertesi

Lost in space? Cuts to NASA threaten innovation, diplomacy

Planetary scientists and space aficionados alike are up in arms over NASA’s 2013 budget, released last week. The agency announced that it would pull out of a mission partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA) due to budget cuts. That project, called the “ExoMars” Mission, would have sent two robotic vehicles to the Red Planet: one to scour its surface and the other to orbit overhead, both searching for signs of the planet’s past ability to harbor life. And the Mars Program is not the only victim of the current budget climate. The cuts will affect missions in their prime, like the Cassini Mission to Saturn, and missions in their infancy, like a planned explorer to Jupiter’s oceanic moon Europa, both of which involve strong European connections.  This on top of a year where NASA has already flip-flopped on agreements with its European partners over several missions-in-planning, from a gravitational waves detection project to a joint mission to Jupiter’s moons. In each case, NASA initially acted as a partner, only to leave ESA scrambling to make up the costs.

This about-face is not only poor diplomacy, it is damaging to America’s long-term interests in space and on the ground.

Saturn moons Rhea (foreground) and Titan as photographed by the Cassini spacecraft in December 2011. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

As a sociologist who studies robotic space exploration teams, I have witnessed first-hand the power of international partnerships in space.   Take, for example, the Cassini Mission to Saturn, the orbiter in the Saturn system that is currently touring the planet’s majestic moons and rings. An American-European partnership conceived in the 1980s that arrived at Saturn in 2004, not a week goes by that the Cassini team doesn’t make a breakthrough scientific discovery, such as the active water geysers on the distant ice moon Enceladus, or return a breathtaking image of Saturn’s rings that inspires the next generation of young scientists. Cassini has also produced astonishing technological feats, such as the Huygens probe to Titan: the first man-made object ever to land on another planet’s moon.

Cassini is one of the “Flagship” missions, the largest class in terms of scientific scope and funding. But even smaller, less expensive NASA missions such as the Mars Exploration Rovers regularly benefit from European instruments and scientists who play an essential role in the search for past water on Mars. These relationships also prove critical in scientific analysis, as scientists frequently combine data from European and American-built robotic explorers to get a richer, fuller picture of the planets they study. This is what international cooperation in space looks like. Neither agency could achieve these feats alone, but working together they bring countless benefits to American science, technology, and industry.

Such partnerships produce other benefits, too. Sociological studies all agree that the best source of group innovation is inter-organizational collaboration.  Exposing people to new ideas and new ways of doing things frequently provides the “missing piece” to the puzzle. International missions, therefore, create especially fertile ground for new ideas. Scientific insights and engineering solutions are pushed to new heights, and mission-mates frequently work together to sketch out innovative concepts for the next generation of planetary explorers. It is especially unfortunate that the very missions that NASA is pulling out of now were themselves born of ideas and relationships that arose from past, successful international partnerships.

Getting international missions off the ground isn’t easy. An intergovernmental agency, ESA can commit more money at one go for an entire project; while NASA, subject to the yearly whims of Congress, can only commit to one year at a time. Because missions can take decades to plan and execute, they are especially vulnerable to political turmoil or economic crisis. But in rough economic times, cost-sharing between agencies is a guarantor of success. No single agency can foot the entire bill, but together they regularly accomplish more than one nation could afford alone.

In fact, it is often during such rough times that we need international collaboration the most. During the recession in the early 1990s, the then-NASA administrator tried to pull the plug on Cassini, citing high costs. Fortunately, higher-ups took the longer view. Investment in the mission provided much-needed jobs and economic stimulus at home. But equally important, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Block, the mission would also build relationships that would endure and even lead the way through whatever tumult was to come. As we face another period of international political and economic instability almost twenty years later, we would again be remiss to walk away from these fragile, yet essential, transnational ties with the excuse that we have our own gardens to tend.

There are long-term disadvantages to continuing to disappoint our ESA colleagues. Our former partners are already looking elsewhere for more stable partnerships on which to build their scientific, technical, and diplomatic futures. Going forward, NASA must make every effort to preserve and prioritize these fragile relationships.  Otherwise, the most important returns on investment for mission success stories like Cassini – the human investment – will be irrevocably lost.

Janet Vertesi is a sociologist of science and technology at Princeton University who has worked with NASA mission teams since 2006. Via the Op-Ed Project Public Voices Fellowship.