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Can Congress Save NASA Science?

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Science  01 Jul 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5731, pp. 37
DOI: 10.1126/science.309.5731.37

In a remarkable show of bipartisan concern, U.S. lawmakers have ordered NASA not to sacrifice research programs to pay for President George W. Bush's vision of humans on the moon and eventually Mars. But at the same time, they may have compounded NASA's problems by giving a tentative green light to Bush's plans while providing little relief for an impending budget crunch in science.

Last week, a Senate funding panel told NASA to spend an additional $400 million in its 2006 budget to fix the Hubble Space Telescope and bolster the flagging earth sciences effort. But the panel added only $134 million to NASA's $4 billion science budget to do so. Likewise, the House version of the spending bill, passed 2 weeks ago, is sympathetic to science but provides a relatively paltry $40 million increase over the president's request, most of which would go to saving the Glory earth science project. Reconciling the two pieces of legislation, one NASA manager says, “is sure to be difficult and confusing.” Compounding the problem are a spate of cost overruns in research projects and growing pressure to divert money to efforts like a new human space launcher to replace the space shuttle, which is due to return to flight later this month.

NASA's new boss Michael Griffin has added another wrinkle: He's likely to rescue several science projects that the agency planned to cancel to save money. He recently ordered continued operation of the Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission, which NASA sought to turn off last year in a decision that triggered a congressional outcry (Science, 13 August 2004, p. 927). NASA's efforts to win funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration failed, so the space agency must shoulder the entire $16 million needed to keep it functioning through 2009, says NASA spokesperson Delores Beasley. Griffin is also under pressure not to turn off a host of other spacecraft, including Voyager 1 and 2, now under review for termination. Each has staunch supporters in Congress.

Shuttle diplomacy.

NASA must balance competing needs, such as returning the shuttle to flight, while planning a new mission to Jupiter's moon Europa.


Griffin also recently promised senators a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa in the middle of the next decade, an effort sure to cost upward of $1 billion even with help from the European Space Agency. Congress likes the idea, and the House funding panel urged the agency to include Europa as a new start in 2007. But how that mission will fit into an increasingly strained long-term budget remains a mystery. This week, Griffin told Congress that it would be “rather dumb” to turn off Voyager 1 and 2, a cost-saving move in NASA's 2006 budget request.

A team of agency officials and outside researchers, meanwhile, is working on ways to cope with a $1 billion cost overrun for the James Webb Space Telescope. That report is due later this summer. Cost increases in the Solar Dynamic Observatory and other missions that are already well into development are worrying agency managers.

The fate of space station science also hangs in the balance. A sweeping internal NASA study laying out a revamped construction schedule for the international space station is due in July. NASA officials say that they must decrease the 28 flights now planned to meet the president's 2010 deadline for halting shuttle flights. That change, they add, is certain to reduce the number of missions devoted to orbiting research equipment and experiments.

One likely victim, Griffin told Congress, is the centrifuge, once the central facility for station research. Life scientists will need to “go elsewhere,” he says. “I cannot put microbiology and fundamental life sciences higher than” the need for a new launch vehicle for astronauts.

In contrast, preserving science aboard the station is one of the goals of a bill introduced last week to reauthorize NASA programs. “Such a restriction on the range of research disciplines aboard the [space station] is not in the best interest of the nation or of our partners,” says its sponsor, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX). The bill calls for NASA to spend an additional $100 million on station research in the next 5 years and come up with a revamped research plan.

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