Concerns Voiced Over Future of Space Science Programs

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Publication date: 
9 May 2007

"It is both ‘the best of times and the worst of times' for NASA's space science programs. We have witnessed a whole series of exciting events in recent months.... The bad news is that while those accomplishments were enabled by the nation's past investments in NASA's science activities, the outlook for the needed future investments is not good if present trends are any indication." - House S&T Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Chair Mark Udall (D-CO)

The dichotomy between the plethora of exciting scientific results today and a possible dearth of results in the future, if current budget trends continue, was the subject of a May 2 hearing of the House S&T Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. Scientists representing several space science disciplines warned that NASA's FY 2008 budget request and future funding plans will be detrimental to its science programs. They particularly decried cuts to Research and Analysis (R&A) funding and to suborbital, small- and medium-sized science missions that provide a career path for young investigators. The hearing, which focused on space science programs within NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD), also highlighted concerns over the increasing costs of access to space, the upcoming elimination of an important launch vehicle for smaller missions, poor historical estimates of mission costs, and the burden of oversight and risk reduction. Life and microgravity science programs were not discussed, nor was earth science, which will be the topic of a forthcoming subcommittee hearing.

NASA's fiscal year 2008 request for its space science programs is $4.0 billion, with $1.4 billion for Planetary Science, $1.1 billion for Heliophysics, and $1.6 billion for Astrophysics. According to subcommittee chairman Mark Udall (D-CO), the Administration has cut another $4 billion over five years from the Science Mission Directorate's funding profile, compared to its intentions at the time President Bush announced his Vision for Space Exploration. Ranking Minority Member Ken Calvert (R-CA) pointed out that "severe budget challenges" facing NASA's human spaceflight program forced the agency to "remove future budget growth" from its science programs "in order to address more pressing needs." The Administration plans to restrict budget growth for NASA science programs to one percent per year over the next few years, which is an effective reduction given inflation and growing launch costs (see for details of the FY 2008 request). Several of the witnesses expressed disappointment that NASA science was not included in the President's American Competitiveness Initiative, which calls for increased funding for basic research in certain physical sciences areas.

In their prepared statements, the four non-NASA witnesses gave notably similar assessments of the health of their fields. "For each of the disciplines in SMD, there is a sobering downward trend in missions," said Lennard Fisk of the University of Michigan, and Chair of the National Research Council's Space Studies Board. Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz, stated, "If one takes a near-term view...the mission mix in Astrophysics looks fairly good.... [But] the new mission pipeline is strikingly empty beyond 2009." Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado, Boulder, added, "At present, the Heliophysics Division...has a number of exciting projects... Beyond this good news, however, there are significant concerns." "The reason why we aren't all celebrating," said Joseph Burns of Cornell University, "is because, while America's planetary exploration program is indeed doing well currently, its future is quite uncertain." Burns went on to point out that "at present no planetary flagship mission is in development, an unprecedented situation."

Testifying before the subcommittee for the first time as NASA's Associate Administrator for SMD was Alan Stern. Stern brings to the position a background in astrophysics and planetary science, and experience as a principal investigator on NASA science missions. He was lauded by the other witnesses as an excellent choice for the role. Stern said that one of his first actions in his new position was to establish an SMD Office of Chief Scientist "to provide independent technical analysis and advice" regarding science issues. His statement highlighted the role of science in the Vision for Space Exploration: "I am an enthusiastic advocate of human exploration and believe that a strong science important to maximizing the benefits to the Nation of such human exploration." Stern's top goals for the next five years include making "strong progress" in advancing the priorities of the decadal surveys for each discipline; improving management and efficiency to free up more money for science missions; and increasing the scientific yield of the Vision for Space Exploration. "I am committed," he stated, to "bringing to NASA and the Congress the best possible slate of programs and program success within the significant resources already available."

Stern's concerns aligned with those expressed by the other witnesses. All worried about rising launch costs, inadequate mission cost-estimation procedures, and the need to increase support for R&A and maintain a mix of small- and medium-sized missions. They agreed that small, inexpensive projects such as those utilizing balloons, sounding rockets, or aircraft were invaluable for preparing NASA's future workforce, ensuring that young scientists and engineers get hands-on experience. Illingworth remarked that R&A was "a grab bag" of many elements, including theory, technology development, workforce training and data analysis. Asked whether a certain percentage of a project budget was appropriate for R&A, the witnesses replied that it was discipline-dependent. Baker pointed out that the Science Mission Directorate plans to undertake a systematic review of this issue.

Illingworth also testified that, in the past, mission cost estimates were often "unrealistic and incomplete," leading to "a gap between what we wanted to do and what we can do." He said this concern has been recognized by both the agency and the science community. Stern commented that NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has instituted new policies requiring higher confidence levels for project costs, and allowing principal investigators to be removed from heading missions if cost growth gets out of control. Stern also suggested that principal investigators consider reducing their research and teaching workloads during the critical stages of mission development. Baker pointed out that launch costs could increase dramatically when Boeing phases out its Delta II launch vehicle. The panelists agreed that NASA needs to find a way to maintain such a critical payload launch capability. They also suggested that the bureaucratic overhead involved in mission risk reduction, while appropriate to manned missions, was perhaps unnecessary for unmanned missions and led to additional cost growth.

In response to Stern's contention that available funding could be leveraged and stretched further by increasing international collaborations, the other witnesses raised the issue of ITAR export control regulations. Burns said they "hamstring" collaborations, Baker said they were "inappropriately stifling," and Fisk called them "a nightmare" and "probably the single biggest impediment" to international space science collaborations.

Udall captured the sense of the hearing when he said, "at the end of the day... if we are going to ask our nation's space science program to undertake challenging and meaningful initiatives, we are going to need to provide the necessary resources." He and full Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) sent an April 19 letter to the President, outlining concerns "about the mismatch between the resources being provided to [NASA] and the tasks that it is being asked to undertake." They continued, "We echo the views of other members of Congress who have expressed their interest in meeting with you on this important matter, and we hope that there will be the opportunity for all of us to meet with you in the near future to discuss how best to realize our common goals."

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