Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Saving Cassini - ESA and NASA in 1994

In June 1994, as a result of threatened cuts during Dan Goldin's tenure as NASA administrator, our epic mission to the Saturn system was under extreme threat of cancellation.  The background to these decisions is covered in Michael Meltzer's excellent book, but I'd always heard of the striking letter sent directly to Vice President Al Gore (i.e., bypassing Goldin) from ESA's Director General, Jean-Marie Luton.  I managed to track this letter down in an appendix to a 1998 book from the National Academic Press on U.S.-European Collaboration In Space Science, and it's reproduced here.  Further background can be found in the NASA in the World book.

Letter from the European Space Agency to the Vice President of the United States, June 13, 1994

european space agency

agence spatiale européenne


Paris, 13 JUNE 1994

Jean-Marie Luton
Director General

The Honorable Albert Gore, Jr.
Vice President of the United States
Old Executive Office Building
Washington, DC 20501

Dear Mr. Vice President,

I have recently received a number of disturbing reports that suggest that the continuation of the joint U.S./European CASSINI mission could be threatened by ongoing Congressional deliberations on NASA's FY95 Appropriations Bill.

I am aware that the House version of the Bill, as marked up by the House VA-HUD and Independent Agencies Subcommittee on June 9, retains the necessary funding for NASA's portion of the mission. However, I am also aware that the House Subcommittee's Senate counterpart is faced with a more stringent budget allocation. I am told that the Subcommittee Chair, Senator Mikuiski, has indicated that without an increase in said allocation, termination of a major NASA programme would have to be contemplated, with specific reference being made to the CASSINI mission.

In the field of space science, CASSINI is the most significant planetary mission presently being undertaken by either the European Space Agency (ESA) or NASA, involving the exploration of Saturn, the most complex planet in the solar system and of its Moon, Titan. It is expected to provide at least a ten-fold increase in our knowledge of both bodies as compared to NASA's highly successful Voyager mission.

In making the commitment to participate with the U.S. in 1989, ESA oriented its overall space science programme in order to select this cooperative project, rather than opt for one of a number of purely European alternatives that were proposed at the same time. This decision was taken on the basis of scientific merit and in the belief that the cooperation would be of major benefit to both the U.S. and European scientific communities as well as the international science community in general. Over the past five years, while ESA's Long-Term Space Plan has been forced to undergo a series of significant revisions, driven primarily by our own budget limitations, the Member States have maintained a full commitment to the space science portion of the plan, of which CASSINI is an essential component.

To date, the Member State governments of ESA have committed around $300 Million to our portion of the mission (the Huygens Probe that will descend into the atmosphere of Saturn's Moon Titan, and several elements of the Saturn Orbiter Payload), of which two-thirds have already been spent, and have committed to a further expenditure of around $100 Million to see the mission through to completion. These figures do not include the approximately $100 Million contribution of Italy via a NASA/Italian Space Agency bilateral agreement.

The HUYGENS programme has been in the hardware phase for the past four years, with probe delivery to NASA due to take place in two years time. The hardware integration and testing phase started in early May this year.

The CASSINI mission has generated intense interest in Europe, both within the scientific and engineering community and from the public at large. Approximately 900 European scientists and engineers are working on the programme with more than 30 European institutes and universities involved in the preparation of CASSINI/HUYGENS science.

Europe therefore views any prospect of a unilateral withdrawal from the cooperation on the part of the United States as totally unacceptable. Such an action would call into question the reliability of the U.S. as a partner in any future major scientific and technological cooperation.

I urge the Administration to take all necessary steps to ensure that the U.S. commitment to this important cooperative programme is maintained so that we shall be able to look forward to many more years of fruitful cooperation in the field of space science.


J.M. Luton

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