NRC Report Critical of NASA's Plans for Science

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Publication date: 
10 May 2006

"The program proposed for space and Earth sciences is not robust; it is not properly balanced...and it is neither sustainable nor capable of making adequate progress toward the goals that were recommended in the National Research Council's decadal surveys." - new NRC report, "An Assessment of Balance in NASA's Science Programs"

Based on its current budget request and future funding proposals, NASA's science programs can neither be considered robust nor sustainable, an expert National Research Council panel has concluded. It calls for NASA to "move immediately" to correct the funding imbalances in its small missions and research and analysis programs; to preserve important microgravity, life and physical sciences research needed for long-duration human spaceflight; to better evaluate the costs of current science missions; and to seek input on these issues from the science community through its advisory committees "as soon as possible." It further calls on Congress and the Administration to recognize and address the "mismatch" between NASA's responsibilities and its available resources, and urges that science funds be isolated so that they are not used to make up shortfalls in the human spaceflight program.

The panel's report, released on May 4, finds that at the time the president's space exploration initiative was announced in 2004, NASA's space and Earth science programs "were projected to grow robustly from about $5.5 billion in 2004 to about $7 billion in 2008." But, it says, NASA's current plans for those programs "differ markedly from planning assumptions of only 2 years ago." The FY 2007 request for the Science Mission Directorate is approximately $200 million less than the FY 2004 appropriation, and NASA proposes cutting the directorate's total available funding in the 2007-2011 period by $3.1 billion below what was projected in last year's budget request. Additionally, the report notes that between the FY 2006 projection and the FY 2007 request, some funds that had been designated for the Science Mission and Exploration Systems Mission Directorates were shifted to the Space Operations Mission Directorate "to compensate for the projected shortfall in support for the shuttle and the ISS [International Space Station] programs."

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin testified on Capitol Hill this spring that NASA "cannot afford to do everything that our many constituents" want it to, and that his highest priorities were to keep the shuttle operating while developing a Crew Exploration Vehicle and to complete the space station (see

The NRC report's findings and associated recommendations are summarized below:

FINDING 1. "NASA is being asked to accomplish too much with too little."

RECOMMENDATION 1. "Both the executive and the legislative branches of the federal government need to seriously examine the mismatch between the tasks assigned to NASA and the resources that the agency has been provided to accomplish them and should identify actions that will make the agency's portfolio of responsibilities sustainable."

FINDING 2. "The program proposed for space and Earth sciences is not robust; it is not properly balanced to support a healthy mix of small, moderate-sized, and large missions and an underlying foundation of scientific research and advanced technology projects; and it is neither sustainable nor capable of making adequate progress toward the goals that were recommended in the National Research Council's decadal surveys."

RECOMMENDATION 2. "NASA should move immediately to correct the problems caused by reductions in the base of research and analysis programs, small missions, and initial technology work on future missions before the essential pipeline of human capital and technology is irrevocably disrupted." If at all possible, the report says, the restoration of these programs "should be accomplished with additional funding for science." It adds, "Given the funding shortages associated with elements of the human spaceflight program, the committee further urges that funding for isolated from other NASA accounts to insure that the money is actually spent on science."

FINDING 3. "The microgravity life and physical sciences programs of NASA have suffered severe cutbacks that will lead to major reductions in the ability of scientists in these areas to contribute to NASA's goals of long-duration human spaceflight."

RECOMMENDATION 3. "Every effort should be made to preserve"the research required for long-duration human spaceflight and to maintain a viable research community to produce "the essential knowledge required to execute the human spaceflight goals of the Vision."

FINDING 4. The major space and Earth science missions "are being executed at costs well in excess" of the cost estimates in the relevant NRC decadal surveys, leading to disruption of "the orderly planning process" and the balance across small, medium and large missions.

RECOMMENDATION 4. "NASA should undertake independent, systematic, and comprehensive evaluations of the cost-to-complete of each of its space and Earth science missions that are under development."

FINDING 5. "A past strength of the NASA science programs...has been the intimate involvement of the scientific community. Some of the current mismatch between the NASA plans for the next 5 years and a balanced and robust program stems from the lack of an effective internal advisory structure at the level of NASA's mission directorates."

RECOMMENDATION 5. "NASA should engage with its reconstituted advisory committees as soon as possible" to determine "the proper balance among large, medium, and small missions, and research and analysis programs," and for feedback on the reviews called for in Recommendation 4.

"NASA's proposed fiscal 2007 budget provides inadequate funding for earth and space science and in particular gives short shrift to the smaller projects that are necessary to keep science progressing and to train new scientists," House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) said in response to the report. "We should not be satisfied with a fiscal 2007 budget that provides less for science than was provided in fiscal 2005."

The report, by the NRC Committee on an Assessment of Balance in NASA's Science Programs, can be read online or ordered at

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