NASA: Back to Eating Seed Corn

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Science  25 Nov 2005:
Vol. 310, Issue 5752, pp. 1245
DOI: 10.1126/science.310.5752.1245

Since the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and its problems last appeared on this page, new administrator Michael Griffin has had about 6 months to deal with his budget problems, one of the largest of which is funding the space shuttle program. Operating the shuttle for the next 5 years could cost $5 billion more than NASA had projected. Just to remind you, there was some hope in April that President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration (VSE, or Moon-to-Mars) would neither cripple basic science programs nor signal the end of a number of planned robotic space missions. Alas, there has been even more damage to both than Science expected. That would be enough bad news, but there's more to the story and it is an international problem, not just a domestic one.

Present concerns at NASA have gone beyond sorrow over the lost robotic missions. Instead, they now focus on the necessary preparations for the VSE mission itself. People are going to fly to the Moon, establish a base, and use the experience gained from getting and living there to send humans on the longest trip in history. Let's ponder the work that has to be done first.

The International Space Station (ISS) has a limited crew (two or three instead of seven), and shuttle flights (of which NASA may only be able to afford eight) are arbitrarily scheduled to end at the end of this decade to meet the recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. Some hope for a complete ISS soon after that, but doubts remain. Remember that ISS is an international project, billed to serve as a science laboratory for non-U.S. users. Russia helped build it and is using it. The European Space Agency and Japan have produced major components of the station, on the promise that they will get to work there. But important modules such as the Centrifuge Accommodation Module constructed by the Japanese will not be launched. The international space science community is dismayed at the bait-and-switch appearance of the situation.


Because the Moon mission comes first, research in support of the long Mars mission is being eliminated or “deferred.” Basic science and technology programs, including physiology and life support, robotics, and information systems, have been “descoped”: that's NASA-speak for dropped. Worse still, NASA's life science program has been relegated to a corner in an exploration office that is more concerned with rockets than with cutting-edge research.

How did all this come about? Charles Oman, the director of the Man Vehicle Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was chair of NASA's Space Station Utilization Advisory Committee and was a member of its Biological and Physical Research Advisory Committee. When the president announced VSE, the latter group was assured by an associate administrator that basic research would be continued because it would be essential to the vision. Well, Oman's committee has been disbanded, and the associate administrator who gave the assurances has been reassigned. Oman adds that “all the NASA Advisory Council subcommittees that spoke to the value of basic research are gone.”

What is likely to be the fate of science in this new vision for space exploration? Even if NASA finds the money and the will to do the research needed to protect the human travelers, the agency's history offers little reason for confidence. Larry Young, MIT bioengineer, longtime NASA adviser, and one-time payload specialist astronaut in training, has this to say about those prospects: “NASA always uses research as justification for its large manned missions, but once they are under way the engineering, political, and fiscal factors take over and the science constituency is often cast aside.”

We can hope that VSE will come to represent the triumph of hope over experience. But will the basic and applied science be done beforehand that is necessary to keep the explorers safe and healthy, or will these professionals seem more like participants in another extreme sport? There are promises that some of these programs will be restarted after the Moon piece of VSE is done, but then the scientists will be someplace else, and NASA will need years to grow some more seed corn. Griffin should consider some fixes: First, restore NASA's Advisory Council to its full membership; second, ask it to conduct a thorough study of which life sciences efforts are essential to the new vision; and finally, rescue the life scientists and bring them back to the science office.

  • *Editor-in-Chief, Science


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