We do not have lift- off

October 1, 1999

Prestigious Nasa space missions, some involving British scientists, are in jeopardy as United States politicians row over their public- spending budget.

The extent of the proposed cutbacks, which could claim the US Mars missions and the Next Generation Space Telescope, has surprised some observers, although seasoned Nasa-watchers have become cynical about the annual panic over space-science funding.

The uncertainty surrounding this year's financial situation, which may not be resolved until Christmas, is threatening collaborative work with the comparatively more stable European Space Agency.

Discussions between the US Senate, which proposes measures that could result in an overall $184 million cut in the space science programme, and the House of Representatives, which wants to save $900 million, will begin soon. Nasa has requested $13.5 billion.

A compromise is expected to emerge in the next few weeks, which will then have to be ratified by US President Clinton.

Daniel Goldin, Nasa administrator, said: "These cuts would gut space exploration."

Threatened projects with a high UK element include: the Next Generation Space Telescope, which will replace Hubble in 2007; Planck Surveyor, which will map the cosmic microwave background; First, the far-infrared space telescope; Lisa, which will pinpoint gravitational waves; Solar B, a Solar physics mission run jointly with the Japanese; Stereo, a solar physics project still awaiting Nasa approval; and Swift, a UK/US/Italian probe to study gamma ray bursters, also awaiting Nasa go-ahead.

Alan Wells, of Leicester University, which has a strong interest in Swift, said: "Space science has been made into a political target, but we've been right to the wire before and no one would be rash enough to suggest what the outcome will be."

Other scientists admitted being anxious. Mike Cruise, a leading player in the Lisa project at Birmingham University, said: "When Nasa sneezes everyone catches a cold and this is really starting to cause problems for Esa's attempts to make plans."

The relationship between Nasa and Esa has been soured in the past by American withdrawal from projects at the eleventh hour. Colin Pillinger of the Open University said the constant doubt over funding has meant many scientists who want to work with colleagues in the US are being put off.

American university officials have reacted with alarm to proposed space science cuts, which could include the end of many small project grants and comes as federal investment in academic research has fallen to a 40-year low as a proportion of the gross domestic product.

Charles Vest, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said:

"America's prosperity, security and future as a global leader all depend on it. Any hope for a more balanced and sounder investment portfolio for science and engineering depends on Congress and the White House rejecting the cuts."

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