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Scientists Polled on Solar System Exploration Program Priorities

Press Release From: University of Arizona
Posted: Monday, April 24, 2006

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The Planetary Science Institute (PSI), in collaboration with the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory of The University of Arizona, the SETI Institute and the Space Science Institute, has conducted a survey of U.S.-based planetary scientists to prioritize NASA solar system exploration programs across spending categories in the face of an uncertain future for NASA space science in general.

Survey results are posted at http://www.psi.edu. More than 1,000 responded to the poll, which is the largest response ever (about 50 percent) to a survey of that community, said PSI Director Mark V. Sykes. PSI is a non-profit planetary research organization headquartered in Tucson, Ariz.

Respondents ranked NASA Research and Analysis (R&A) programs the top funding priority. Eighty-eight percent ranked R&A either first or second priority. Ninety-one percent said that R&A funding should be stable and never used to fund missions.

"The real issue is that half of the American workforce will be retired 10 years from now, " said Regents' Professor Michael J. Drake, director of the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and planetary sciences department. "If we are to remain competitive in space, we need to train the next generation of planetary scientists, and they are supported by R & A programs. That's the real issue. This is about young people, the researchers of the future."

R&A programs also are important because they return the greatest value from exisiting missions, Drake added. R&A programs are critical to developing the highest potential for new missions, regardless of frequency, he said. "One concludes from the survey that when budget climates are restrictive, R&A programs need to be protected first."

An important survey finding is the willingness of the planetary community to make sacrifices in the scheduling of its high priority Discovery-class (small) missions if needed to allow Flagship (large) and New Frontier-class (medium) missions.

More than half (58 percent) were willing to spread out opportunities for Discovery-class missions to accomplish this. Almost three-quarters (73 percent) agreed to skip one or two Discovery- class mission opportunities as well as a New Frontier-class mission opportunity if such an action allowed a Flagship mission to be flown.

"The community clearly values large as well as small missions. Such a mix is needed to preserve American competitiveness in solar system exploration," said SSI Co-Director of Research Heidi Hammel. SSI is a non-profit space research institute headquartered in Boulder, Colo.

"The greatest danger facing American solar system exploration today is the current effort by NASA to transfer its funding to other enterprises having budget crises," Sykes said.

As a part of this, NASA has specifically targeted the survey's highest priority research programs for sharp reductions in its initial FY06 Operating Plan and FY07 budget proposal. Congressional approved is pending for both.

"Congress should direct NASA to reverse these transfers," Sykes said. "Let's not break what works."

Contact Information

Mark V. Sykes, Planetary Science Institute
520-622-6300 sykes@psi.edu

Michael J. Drake, UA Lunar and Planetary Lab
520-621-6962 drake@lpl.arizona.edu

Heidi B. Hammel, Space Science Institute
203-438-3506 hbh@alum.mit.edu

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