The Scientific Activist (Archives)


Apr 27, 2006

Science to Suffer at NASA

On Tuesday, April 25th, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin testified before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science and Space that science funding at NASA would have to be cut in order to fund human space flight. Citing national security interests among other reasons, Griffin detailed the agency’s priorities of getting the space shuttle program on track before the program is canceled in 2010 and then developing its replacement, scheduled to launch in 2014. This shifting of funding follows a trend that began in 2004, when President Bush announced his Vision for Space Exploration, which featured a call for manned missions to the moon and to Mars.

The focus on manned spaceflight is widely seen as a distraction from some of the important science currently taking place at NASA, including further exploring our solar system by sending probes to various planets, working to better understanding the makeup of our universe, and searching for conditions hospitable for life in our solar system and beyond. According to The New York Times, science funding at NASA will be reduced by $3 billion dollars in the coming years to make room for more manned missions.

Although sometimes criticized as more PR than science, manned missions surely play an important role in the space program, spurring the development of new technologies, performing various scientific experiments, and, of course, shoring up public support for the space program in general. Still, a disproportionate amount of science takes place in unmanned missions for the amount of funding they receive, and sacrificing this science seems misguided at this point.

Griffin argued that insufficient funding is the primary obstacle holding back NASA’s new human spaceflight program:
Dr. Griffin said that the new spaceship to carry humans, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, should be ready by 2014, and that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was looking at ways to speed its development to deliver it a year or two sooner. The main limit to flying the new ship, which could take crews to the International Space Station and later to the moon, is money, he said.

Regardless of whether this is true, it is clear that this is not the case for manned flight in general at NASA, as The New York Times reported earlier this week that money is the least of the worries for the embattled space shuttle program:
A string of distracting accidents, safety incidents and tough technical questions have complicated NASA's efforts to get the space shuttle program back on track.

The shuttle Discovery is to fly again in July, in only the second mission since the Columbia disaster in February 2003. But there are continuing questions about fuel-tank foam, which doomed the Columbia and bedeviled the Discovery's return-to-flight mission last year, and about other parts on the aging shuttle fleet.

And this winter, there were so many accidents — a robot arm damaged by a moving work platform, a dropped film canister that damaged heat tiles on the shuttle Endeavour, a small fire in the assembly building — that last month the director of the Kennedy Space Center stopped all work for two hours and lectured employees on safety.

When work resumed the next day, a worker was killed in a fall from a warehouse roof.

Hopefully NASA will be able to overcome these tough obstacles so the space shuttle can safely fly as soon as possible. In the meantime, though, it is ill-advised to sacrifice more fruitful scientific programs for something of much less scientific significance. Although manned space flight is a great source of national pride and its further development should be encouraged, NASA needs to reevaluate its priorities.


  • The problem NASA faces is not the fact that manned space flight takes up most of the budget - the problem lies with a lack of political and funding support for NASA overall. Congress expects NASA to do too much with too little, with the agency's funding remaining flat or declining over the past 15 years. NASA has funding commitments re. ISS and has to deliver, while simultaneously gear up for Shuttle retirement, CEV development, funding basic science etc. The only way out of this logjam is more funding - and that's not going to happen. And that's why science gets it in the neck.

    By Anonymous Brian O'Halloran, at Fri Apr 28, 02:21:00 AM  

  • Brian, I was at the Kennedy Library last night and your comment hearkens back to the beginning of the space program. Kennedy put Johnson in charge of the Space Commission and the memo was at the Library where Kennedy asked Johnson about 7 questions basically asking can we send a man to the moon? a rocket to the moon? a missle to the moon? Is NASA working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? Johnson's answer was basically "no" and the explanation was that NASA was working very hard on all of their projects, but if they were going to be expected to do more - all of what Kennedy was suggesting - then federal government was going to have to pony up a WHOLE lot more money. This was the beginning of the modern day space program in those seven pages or so. So, yes, in a limited budget scenario there has to be priorities, but I do think cutting the science programs in favor of manned space missions is possibly foolish.

    By Blogger muse, at Mon May 01, 04:27:00 AM  

  • Do you think that NASA should be focused on science or exploration? The U.S. government has other ways of funding worthy science -- like the NSF -- outside of NASA. If there's an important scientific inquiry in planetary science or aerodynamics or whatever, couldn't that scientist submit to the NSF for funding (presuming we raise the available funding at the NSF) and then buy whatever "space services" it needs(such as launches, ISS time, whatever) from either NASA or NASA contractors?

    The unique function NASA has is exploration, and with limited budget, the VSE allows for it to more agressively pursue this. If NASA's job was scientific research, it would duplicate other efforts.

    By Blogger Becca, at Mon May 01, 10:37:00 PM  

  • I think NASA has a lot on its plate, focusing on both science and discovery, but these two goals are largely compatible, particularly in regards to unmanned space exploration. While NASA's resources are clearly limited, they are still extensive, and due to the resources and technologies that NASA has at its disposal, it is able to undertake scientific projects that others would not be able to, financially or technologically. The Mars rovers and the Hubble telescope are prime examples of such outstanding scientific projects. There needs to be a balance here, although scientifically-focused missions offer the dual advantages of providing immediately tangible benefits while also contributing to future science and technology in ways that only become apparent much later.

    By Blogger Nick Anthis, at Tue May 02, 12:08:00 AM  

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