You've probably seen that bumper sticker that says something along the lines of, "It will be great when schools have all the funding they need and the Navy has to have a bake sale to buy a battleship" (another variation replaces the Navy and a battleship with the Air Force and a bomber, but the point holds). Well, in the fine spirit of fundraisers everywhere, the somewhat inelegantly-named Southwest Research Institute Planetary Science Directorate is going to be conducting a combination bake sale/car wash to benefit the red-headed step-child of government agencies: NASA.
The National Planetary Exploration Car Wash and Bake Sale is set for June 9th, and will be happening at locations around the country. Institutions like Caltech, UCLA, Notre Dame, and several others, including the Google X Prize-winning Moon Express, have signed on as anchor partner institutions. Though donations will be accepted and passed along, the goal of the event is to raise awareness, rather than funds. I spoke with Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, and he said that "our primary objective is to raise awareness about the deep and damaging cuts (over $1B) to the NASA planetary exploration budget, and to focus attention on repairing those cuts."
NASA has suffered severely in recent years. As the economy has struggled the government has repeatedly cannibalized the agency, to the point that NASA's budget for 2012 is far too small to fund any of the major projects the agency once had planned. New manned missions to the moon? Gone. Unmanned probes to Mars? Nope. Manned missions to Mars? Fat chance. So desperate has the situation become, in fact, that last week NASA put out a call for help from scientists and engineers who could help the agency come up with ways to get to Mars on its paltry new budget.
Growing up in the 1980s, NASA and its space shuttles loomed large in my imagination. If you'd asked the kids in my third grade class what we wanted to be when we grew up, a sizable portion (myself included) would've said we wanted to be astronauts. Though I (obviously) pursued other career paths, I never really lost my childhood infatuation with space.
By the time my young son came along and developed his own love of space, the shuttle program was already on its last legs. At that time there was less than a year left of shuttle missions, and so the decision was made to take him to see a shuttle launch. With the shuttle program now done and no heir apparent waiting to replace it, the people of my generation are faced with the prospect of telling our children that they live in a country that once put men on the moon, and that was planning to send human beings to Mars, right up until we stopped caring.
The goal of the Planetary Exploration Car Wash and Bake Sale is not to make up for the shortfalls in NASA's budget - it would be hard to wash that many cars or sell that many cookies. Instead, the institutions are trying to make people aware of the budget crisis currently facing America's space program and of the benefits of a fully-funded NASA.[Lead Image: Space Shuttle Discovery on board a modified Boeing 747, en route to Washington, D.C. to take up residence at the Smithsonian. Credit: Dinesh Cyanam]