NASA Space Science Continues To Be at Risk

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Editor's note: The following appeared in the 27 March 2006 edition of Space News and is republished with the permission of the authors.

NASA leadership is laying the groundwork for an American space science program in permanent retreat. Research and analysis programs — the very foundation of future exploration efforts — are being cut by more than 25 percent through the 2006 and 2007 budgets to help pay for increasing costs in human spaceflight.

In an open letter dated March 13, NASA Associate Administrator Mary Cleave justifies this reduction because NASA's plan for fewer missions means "a larger body of advanced research and development to prepare for future missions is not required."

Science capability cannot be maintained when support for research shrinks. Cutting science research necessarily results in the loss of primarily young scientists and the degradation of sub-disciplines, from which we cannot bounce back quickly.

This position ensures missions we do in the future will reflect a decreased capability. Such missions will be more limited, less cost effective and return less science. Fewer research dollars means fewer students as well as fewer young researchers. The next generation will be discouraged from entering what was once held up as an exciting career path utilizing science and math skills.

This is not a hypothetical future loss. It will happen immediately as cuts are implemented this year and next, and will worsen with time. NASA's cutback of its own research programs is causing serious problems, particularly within Solar System Exploration.

For instance, the amount of Mars data being returned to the Earth is sky-rocketing. Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which recently arrived successfully at Mars, is going to send back more data than all previous planetary missions combined, and non-MRO scientists will have the opportunity to propose spacecraft observations.

Yet NASA has reduced funding in 2006 and 2007 for Mars research and data analysis programs, diminishing the ability of scientists (whose numbers will be declining as well) to determine the best places to point this spacecraft to get the maximum science return.

More data will simply go unanalyzed. Current NASA policy significantly undermines the benefit from the large taxpayer investment in Mars missions now and in the future. This lack of foresight extends to the reduction in 2006 and 2007 funding for the NASA Planetary Data System, further hampering efforts to save and distribute mission data in general.

There is some disconnect between NASA decisions and the information that should in part be driving it. For example, we are discovering an ever-increasing number of locations and conditions in the solar system where life might arise. Headlines across the country have been announcing evidence of water geysers on Saturn's moon Enceladus, and the No. 1 question was whether life could exist in such an environment.

Jupiter's moon Europa is a target of intense astrobiological interest, as is the planet Mars. The potential existence of a subsurface ocean on the main belt asteroid Ceres offers the exciting possibility of an in-situ search for life much closer to Earth than Saturn or Jupiter (Ceres is a rendezvous target of the Dawn mission). Despite these exciting developments, NASA has cut its astrobiology research programs literally in half.

No explanation has been offered. NASA is canceling and delaying development of small competed missions (such as Discovery and Explorer), and raising uncertainties about long-planned flagship missions (such as Europa Orbiter and the James Webb Space Telescope).

The National Academies of Science has generated a number of decadal surveys of the space science community over the years to establish priorities for NASA Space Science in its small, medium and large efforts. These surveys recognize the necessity of maintaining small competed mission lines and stable research and analysis programs. This importance was uniformly affirmed by prominent scientists from planetary science, astronomy, Earth science and space physics at a recent hearing before the House Science Committee.

At the large end, flagship missions are more infrequent — about once a decade — but no less important as they enable a class of science that cannot otherwise be accomplished. The current imposition of flat funding of NASA Space Science for the indefinite future ensures that there will be no more programs like Voyager, Galileo, Cassini, the Hubble Space Telescope or the Spitzer Space Telescope without cannibalizing all other space science efforts and research programs (the apparent path), which would mark the end of American pre-eminence in space science.

NASA needs to recognize that both long-term commitment and flexibility are required in the size of the space science budget in order to properly accommodate crucial flagship missions. NASA management is encouraging everyone to look at the 1-percent "growth" in science in the 2007 NASA budget and beyond as a positive thing. However, this "growth" falls well below inflation, and it ignores the cuts within that budget to research and small missions.

Even more serious are the cuts and money transfers going on right now in the 2006 budget from science to human spaceflight. Unfortunately, even if Congress were to increase funding for NASA science, such funding could be quickly lost. Administrator Griffin already has said that science will be used to cover funding shortages for the "higher-priority" expenses associated with human spaceflight such as the shuttle and its replacement.

Barring specific direction from Congress forbidding NASA to make such transfers, the prospect for NASA space science is grim.

America needs both a healthy human exploration program and a healthy space science program. It is not clear what it will take to return Americans reliably to low Earth orbit. However, it is clear that current NASA policy will leave one of the nation's crown jewels — its space science program — on the road to ruin.

Congress needs to protect America's investment in space science, by restoring  funds transferred in the 2006 budget from space science in 2006, reversing the additional cuts to research proposed for 2007, and restricting transfers from space science to human spaceflight. Administrator Griffin and Associate Administrator Cleave need to act now to restore cuts to the 2006 research and analysis programs to ensure that irrevocable damage to our space science infrastructure is avoided.

Mark V. Sykes is director of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz. Dr. Heidi B. Hammel is research branch co-director of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., and Ridgefield, Conn.


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