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Planetary research: more budget squeeze.

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.

"It is clear," says Wilkening's letter, "that if the NASA budget is frozen line by line at last year's level, this means a $70 million cut from $360 million in ongoing planetary activity. Some major activities in planetary exploration will have to be canceled or, at best, delayed until next year with the hope that the picture will be brighter then."

Furthermore, says Clark Chapman of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, "we've gotten no positive signs that the Senate is going to help in a big way."

But the problem appears to loom in little ways as well. Last week, for example, David Scott, "discipline scientist" for planetary geology and geophysics in NASA's Solar System Exploration Division, wrote to scientists funded by his program. "Most principal investigators [P.I.'s]," he wrote of his much smaller budgetary subsection, "will have to lower sights and trim their funding requests.... Some P.I.'s may suffer substantial cuts in their proposed budgets...."

Even so, he told SCIENCE NEWS, "'86, I think, hopefully, will be our last bad year" -- and NASA is indeed hoping to initiate plans for a new Planetary Data Systems that will enable more ready access to calibrated data, both existing and yet to come, at significantly reduced cost.

It is unclear, however, notes Chapman, whether Congress will make the seemingly inevitable budget cuts in specific items itself or leave the choices up to NASA; nor, he adds, are NASA's own choices all that clear. Among the worried scientists, he says, "there's a feeling that there's essentially no information."
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Author:Eberhart, Jonathan
Publication:Science News
Date:May 25, 1985
Words:537
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