Confusion at the Space Agency

Science  11 Mar 2005:
Vol. 307, Issue 5715, pp. 1533
DOI: 10.1126/science.1111861

You would have thought there might be a little joy at the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) after the fiscal year 2006 federal budget was released last month. With the success of the Mars rover missions, NASA's space scientists gained the astronomical equivalent of rock star status, and the agency's modest budget increase of 2.4% was four times better than the average for government R&D. But instead, the mood is an odd combination of confusion, gloom, and struggle. What's going on over there?

It starts with two problems. Long before anyone started thinking about the 2006 budget, NASA officials were struggling with what to do about the Hubble Space Telescope. Send astronauts up to fix it? No, said NASA chief Sean O'Keefe, as he left office; too risky. Wrong, said a National Academies panel. A robotic fix is too costly, and a human servicing mission is safe enough. Other proposals were floated, including one for a new telescope that could look for dark energy and dark matter. The president, perhaps feeling saturated by all of this, didn't include servicing money in his budget, leaving scientists to debate priorities.

In fact, priorities and the willingness to set them constitute the second problem. Many astronomers want to see Hubble fixed, or a new telescope put in its place, but they don't want to see money sucked away from other projects. But that's the small end of the NASA problem. On 14 January 2004, President Bush announced a “vision” for space exploration: a project that would take astronauts to the Moon to establish a base and then launch a manned probe to Mars. This announcement, strangely absent from the State of the Union message a week later and still undiscussed in Congress, had a major impact on the NASA budget. According to O'Keefe, it produced a windfall that made the 2006 budget request better than it might have been. But the joy is confined, because the new budget justifies the fears of NASA scientists that exploration will take away funding originally destined for other projects.


At the moment, it appears that with the near-death of the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, there will be no further major robotic explorations of the outer solar system, except the Pluto probe. Considering the scientific haul from the spacecraft Cassini's Saturn sojourn, that's a tragedy. Joining the legion of projects on hold will be the Space Interferometry Mission, which hoped to explore for Earth-sized planets, and the Beyond Einstein project, involving multiple spacecraft arrayed to test the theory of relativity. In short, the imperative of the 3M (man-Moon-Mars) vision has shunted several robotic projects off onto a siding.

The 3M vision may be good news for lunar and martian research, but it is bad news overall for science. Getting humans to Mars is likely to capture public enthusiasm and will require good science and technology. But this is no reason to abandon robotic flights to explore other planets and moons or probe the secrets of deep space. Establishing scientific priorities is difficult enough, given the abundance of technological resources and experimental possibilities available at NASA. Introducing a brand-new exploration mission without additional funding overturns the priority applecart and leaves complex and exciting plans in limbo. That's where NASA is now.

What should be done? First, there's a need for leadership. The president should quickly appoint a new administrator for the space agency, who could unblock the Hubble logjam by following the National Academies' recommendation and ordering a servicing mission. If that doesn't happen, we can expect a continuing argument over alternatives (new Hubble, repaired old Hubble, no Hubble fix at all), with no action. It will help morale and future programs if that decision does not take money from other programs.

Next, the new boss should plead for strong science support from Congress and make it clear that the new exploration program will not be made a reality by raiding existing science money. NASA's science reorganization last summer has left some unfortunate lingering ambiguities. The future of Earth-observing missions is undefined. NASA's hope that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would take over its research satellites is apparently vain, because NOAA doesn't have the money. The environmental sciences need an effective and successful Earth-observing system, and NASA's new leadership should stand up for that need.

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