for National Geographic News
Is Earth the only planet with life?
It's one of many tantalizing scientific questions that NASA is failing to adequately address, several experts said in response to the 16.8-billion-dollar 2007 budget that President George W. Bush's proposed for the U.S. space agency on Monday.
The spending plan, which is a 3.2 percent increase over 2006, places priority on the space shuttle's return to flight, space station construction, and development of the next-generation spacecraft to ferry humans to the moon and, eventually, Mars. (See pictures of NASA's next moon spaceship.)
"NASA simply cannot afford to do everything that our many constituents would like us to do," NASA administrator Michael Griffin said Monday at a press briefing in Washington, D.C.
Griffin said the agency had to take a "couple billion out of science and a billion and a half out of the exploration line" to fund the spaceflight programs.
"I wish we hadn't had to do it. I didn't want to, but that's what we needed to do," he added.
The decision is especially hard on plans to probe our solar system and galaxy for extraterrestrial life, said Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, a space science advocacy group based in Pasadena, California.
For example, NASA had intended to send a robotic explorer to Jupiter's moon Europa, which scientists say may harbor life within an ice-covered ocean. (See "Jupiter Moon May Have LifeExperts Urge a Mission.") The 2007 Bush budget would shelve the mission.
In addition, the Terrestrial Planet Finder project was to use space-based telescopes to search for Earthlike planets in orbit around other stars. It would be "indefinitely postponed," according to the proposed White House budget.
"The search for life on other planets is greatly diminished in NASA now in both human and robotic terms," Friedman said. "Astrobiology"which addresses the question of living organisms on other planets"was cut 50 percent." (Watch video: "Life on Mars?")
On January 14, 2004, President Bush outlined his vision for space exploration.
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES