Bill Nye: More Money Needed For Mars, Planetary Science

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Bill Nye, executive director of The Planetary Society

The Planetary Society is still worried about the future of American capabilities in planetary science, but is encouraged by an increased level of funding proposed for the fiscal 2013 budget, said executive director Bill Nye.

He spoke to SpaceRef Thursday, in an exclusive interview at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, about the need to maintain that field of science. Mr. Nye's greatest concern is losing the ability to land on other planets. That knowledge only resides within NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and associated organizations within the agency, he said.

"If you lose that, you may never get that back. Those people will go off and make video games or some other technical pursuit, instead of this weird little mix that has to be funded by the public (because) there is no commercial application of going to Mars right now," he said.

The initial NASA 2013 budget had a $300 million cut to planetary science, which is a 20-per-cent drop to $1.2 billion. In the past week, a Senate subcommittee reallocated $100 million for NASA's Mars science programs (for a total of $461 million) without specifying where that funding should go. Mr. Nye said figuring out where that money will land is "wonkish."

His society is advocating a full restoration of the $300 million cut, as well as re-allocating about 3% of NASA's $17.7-billion budget in FY2013 to give overall science funding a 30% share. (The budget proposal, after Senate re-examination this week, is now for $19.4 billion after transferring responsibility for weather satellite procurement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to NASA.)

"This modest rebalancing will allow NASA to fully implement the Decadal Survey for Planetary Science, (and) send a mission to Mars and prepare for missions to the outer planets, while allowing NASA to continue a robust program of missions in earth science, astronomy and heliophysics," the society said in a press release in March.

An initial e-mail and physical mail blast to members at that time generated 10,000 responses out of its 35,000 members, Mr. Nye said.

But his organization is also looking for new support. They have just formed an alliance with an organization called Care2, a privately funded Internet community with more than 16 million users, that mainly does advocacy on environmental issues.

"(We want) to have people in the community, especially young people, involved in the politics of space," Mr. Nye said.

"Everybody approves of space exploration. When budgets are being cut, we always say you shouldn't cut the space budget. That's what stimulates the economy and improves the lives of people all over the world."

He said the society will hold out hope all the way until the Congressional vote, as members will "horse-trade" up until the bill is passed. They will also hold an event in Washington, D.C. at the Rayburn House Office Building May 8, and have some confirmed political attendees.

"You can talk big and dream, but if you're going to go to Mars, it's for the public good. The images are going to be public domain, free to everyone on Earth. You want to share science. It's important."

Mr. Nye is best known for hosting Bill Nye the Science Guy, a PBS show that earned seven Emmys during its five-season run in the 1990s.

Reflecting on the show as it rounds its 20th anniversary of airing this year, he said there are few things he would need to change to make it relevant to audiences today.

"We would add more mentions of social media," said Mr. Nye, who has nearly 275,000 followers on his Twitter feed, @TheScienceGuy. But because Mr. Nye and others on the show "actually did the experiments", the fundamentals would still work with preteens today, he said.

It is through alliances with online communities that The Planetary Society can succeed in spreading its message. Perhaps with enough pressure, members of Congress will recognize the importance of keeping the technical jobs in planetary science alive, and will take that into consideration when voting on the budget later this year.

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