NASA Redux

Science  22 Apr 2005:
Vol. 308, Issue 5721, pp. 467
DOI: 10.1126/science.1113665

Six weeks ago, I commandeered this space to report confusion in the ranks at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The former administrator, Sean O'Keefe, was on his way to Louisiana State University; no one knew what would happen to the Hubble telescope; and a host of robotic missions were being put on hold because of rising shuttle costs, congressional pork, and the president's new program: Air Mars, with an intermediate stop at the Moon. Near the end of that piece, I urged that the president appoint a new administrator. To my utter amazement, he did so 24 hours later.

The appointee, Michael Griffin, a respected scientist/engineer from Johns Hopkins, gave the scientific community some encouragement in his confirmation hearing on 12 April. He indicated that once the shuttles start flying again, he would consider sending astronauts to service Hubble. That decision may be controversial, inasmuch as it represents a reversal of O'Keefe's announced intention, but Griffin has some political cover in the form of a National Academies recommendation.

The other parts of Griffin's challenge look much more difficult and could test the comfort of his scientific colleagues in the agency. In this week's Science (p. 484), Andrew Lawler sets out a thorough account of those problems. Griffin is a strong proponent of robotic missions, and in 2003 he told the House Science Committee about his commitment to scientific research to understand Earth's environment, the solar system, and the cosmos. Yet Lawler's analysis of NASA's budget suggests that Griffin may be forced to make deep cuts in robotic science in order to keep both old and brand-new commitments to major missions involving human flight.


Indeed, cutoff plans for several science probes were already being developed at NASA as Griffin's appointment was announced. Continuation of the Voyager missions was under threat, although no final decision had been made; and the 2006 budget request from the administration included no funds for an additional group of space science projects totaling $21 million. It has become apparent that NASA simply can't or won't cut out the big human missions, and in order to “keep ‘em flying,” other, mostly robotic, projects are being scuttled.

Especially distressing to many scientists is the loss of support for Earth observing programs, which lack the political clout of media stars like the Mars rovers or Hubble. The National Academies will soon issue a draft decadal plan for Earth sciences—a sorely needed document like those that have helped astronomers and planetary scientists make their wishes known. It will chart an ambitious program for improving our understanding of oceans, climate, and terrestrial geology and ecosystems. But that vision is not matched by NASA's recent decision to delay or cancel virtually every Earth science mission planned for the coming decade and to terminate several orbiting spacecraft next year.

There is also reason for concern about the future of the scientists who do NASA-supported basic research at other institutions. Deep cuts are now in prospect for these extramural grant programs. That amounts to a transfer of funding from academic institutions to the big industrial contractors who build the vehicles: Think of it like Cal Tech and Stanford paying Lockheed Martin. Nor are changes disadvantaging basic research limited to NASA. A similar transition is under way at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the unit in the Department of Defense that formerly supported some of the most imaginative research programs sponsored by any government agency: the Arpanet, for example, which led to the Internet. Now the DARPA budget has been realigned, with an enlarged share for technical development and less for basic research. University computer science budgets are already feeling the fallout.

Bashing the president on his new exploration vision is probably a waste of breath. A more effective approach would be to insist that exploration is what NASA's science is all about, whether studying the oceans, extrasolar stars, or a Mars ravine, and whether it's done by humans or robots. Finding more money will be hard in a domestic discretionary budget squeezed by growing entitlements and the effect of the tax cuts. But the White House and the Congress must recognize that NASA's superb and diverse research programs should benefit from the president's vision rather than pay a price for it. Let's hope that Griffin, who once observed that the competition between robotic and human missions should not become a zero-sum game, will summon that same wisdom and diplomacy to keep the best science at NASA intact and thriving.

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