The Scientific Activist (Archives)


May 5, 2006

NASA's Priorities Differ From Scientists'

According to a report released Thursday by the National Research Council, NASA does not have enough resources to maintain its varied programs, and science programs are likely to suffer at the hands of larger manned missions. From the official press release (the full report is available online from The National Academies Press):
NASA does not have the resources necessary to maintain a vigorous science program, complete the International Space Station, and return humans to the moon, says a new congressionally mandated report from the National Academies' National Research Council.

"There is a mismatch between what NASA has been assigned to do and the resources with which it has been provided," said Lennard A. Fisk, chair of the committee that wrote the report and Thomas M. Donahue Collegiate Professor of Space Science, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. "We are particularly concerned that the shortfall in funding for science has fallen disproportionately on small missions and on funding for basic research and technology. These actions run the risk of disrupting the pipeline of human capital and technology that is essential for the future success of the space program."

The committee reviewed NASA's plan for research programs for the next five years in space science, which includes astrophysics, heliophysics, planetary science, and astrobiology; earth science; and microgravity life and physical sciences. The committee found that the program proposed for space and earth sciences is neither robust nor sustainable, and that it is not properly balanced to support a healthy mix of small, moderate-sized, and large missions.

The report recommends that NASA restore small missions, research and analysis programs, and technology investment in the future missions. The agency also should preserve the ground-based and flight research required to support long-duration human space flight. For space and earth sciences, the committee concluded that the short-term resource allocation problem is modest, probably slightly more than 1 percent of the total NASA budget. To revive the microgravity life and physical sciences, the short-term allocation of resources needed is also modest -- less than 1 percent of the total NASA budget.

(emphasis added)

The cost of restoring some of these basic science programs is minuscule in the grand scheme of things. Still, these findings come only just over a week after NASA Administrator Michael Griffin testified to the US Senate that NASA funding for basic science would be cut to fund manned missions. These cuts are regrettable, and not surprisingly, they are strongly opposed by the scientific community.

A recent Planetary Science Institute survey of over 1,000 planetary scientists found that, within this community at least, smaller programs were a much greater priority than occasional major missions. Missions were divided into four categories, with the smallest and most common (research and analysis) being the first or second funding priority of 88% of respondents. As missions increased in size and became less frequent, this support decreased to 70%, then to 31%, and finally to only 11% for large flagship missions taking place about once per decade. Planetary Science Institute director Mark Sykes explains what’s at stake in the study's press release:
"The greatest danger facing American solar system exploration today is the current effort by NASA to transfer its funding to other enterprises having budget crises," Sykes said.

As a part of this, NASA has specifically targeted the survey's highest priority research programs for sharp reductions in its initial FY06 Operating Plan and FY07 budget proposal. Congressional approval is pending for both.

"Congress should direct NASA to reverse these transfers," Sykes said. "Let's not break what works."

Still, the study also found that up to 73% of respondents would be willing to spread out smaller missions to allow for large flagship missions in some cases, further backing up the idea that a truly effective space policy should involve a strategic mix of different mission types.


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