House Subcommittee Reviews NASA's Office of Space Science A September 13 hearing of the House Science Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee showed that many Members of Congress are ready to put NASA's Mars program failures behind them and are looking forward to great achievements from the agency's Office of Space Science. "Despite a number of problems," said subcommittee chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), "I believe NASA's space science program remains its greatest success." The hearing profiled the agency's FY 2000 space science achievements and looked at the current status of some projects.
NASA's Associate Administrator for Space Science, Edward Weiler, reviewed highlights of the past year, including the Chandra X-Ray Observatory's contribution to resolving the origin of the diffuse x-ray background and the Hubble Space Telescope's role in estimating the age of the universe. The Administration's FY 2001 request of $2.4 billion for his office (a 9.4 percent increase over current funding), he said, "supports a robust and varied program." He also reported that NASA was reviewing its Mars program on the basis of several recent assessments (see FYIs #43 and #81) "checking off every single recommendation." He expects to brief Congress on this later in the fall.
Claude Canizares, the former chair of the National Research Council's (NRC) Space Studies Board, reviewed a number of the Board's recent reports on space science. He praised the Office of Space Science's strategic planning as "very effective in optimizing" the science research program. He also reiterated the Board's consensus that "the major thrust toward [the faster, better, cheaper approach] has generally been extremely positive for space science," but declared that the size and cost of missions should be dictated by the science objectives. Canizares cited a number of challenges still to be faced in properly utilizing the faster, better, cheaper concept, including the importance of new technology development and the need for adapting methods of international collaboration. He also mentioned concerns that strict satellite export control regulations are hindering international collaborations and some other space science missions, and urged that NASA work with the Departments of State and Commerce to resolve this issue. He also encouraged NASA to do more to foster the health of the space science community, "more as NSF does for areas under its purview." Joseph Taylor, co-chair of the NRC's Astronomy and Astrophysics Survey Committee, discussed his group's recent report (see FYI #62) and concurred "that NASA's space science program is behind many of the agency's greatest successes."
Much of the questioning revolved around how NASA evaluates what missions are worthwhile, and when they should be extended, concluded, or canceled. When Rohrabacher asked about reports that the Pluto mission had recently been canceled, Weiler explained that he had not terminated it but temporarily stopped work on it. He testified that since he took over the office two years ago, the costs of the Pluto and Europa missions had doubled. Believing that Europa was a higher priority, he decided to continue that project and then revisit the Pluto mission with the remaining money.
Weiler reported that NASA was "absolutely going to face cost escalation" on many of the missions initiated before he became associate administrator, but added "that's not necessarily a bad thing. We found out what happens when we [constrain costs] too much," he said: "We crashed two missions." Weiler informed the subcommittee that his office "will not have the program next year that it had two years ago." It will be "less aggressive," he stated, "but may be doable."
Asked about justification for the proposed new Living with a Star initiative to study the sun (which House VA/HUD appropriators did not fund), all three witnesses supported the project. Taylor said that it "fared quite well" against competing priorities in the astronomy survey, and Canizares added that in the strategic planning process, it "came out very much worthy" of funding. Weiler was also asked about the decision to terminate the Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer mission. He noted that the mission's primary objectives had been completed in 1996, and described NASA's independent Senior Review process to assess the value of extending missions. Reviews in 1998 and again in 2000 had found the additional science to be gained from the mission "non- compelling," he testified, so the decision was made to terminate it. "Now that we're doing more missions," Weiler warned, "this issue is going to come up more and more." Canizares strongly supported NASA's review process for evaluating whether to extend on-going missions or fund new ones.
The other major subject of discussion was funding for the Research and Analysis (R&A), and Data Analysis (DA) portions of space science missions. There has been a history of concern within the science community that these accounts, which largely support university-based scientific planning for and analysis of the missions, have long been underfunded. Explaining that he inherited virtually flat R&A and DA budgets, Weiler said it has been "a personal campaign of mine" to find more funding for them. He added that he was "carving out of my own budget" to initiate a three percent annual increase for R&A, and that he anticipated nine to 10 percent annual growth in the combined R&A and DA outyear budgets.
By the end of the hearing, Rohrabacher seemed satisfied with the explanations of the process used by the Office of Space Science to evaluate new missions or justify extending old ones. He concluded the hearing by thanking the panel members for "the good work all of you have done."
This authorization hearing comes at a time when House and Senate conferees have just come to agreement on a NASA authorization bill (H.R. 1654) for the next three fiscal years, and appropriators are struggling to finish up their funding bills before the start of the new fiscal year in less than two weeks. (The House VA/HUD appropriations bill would provide $2,378.8 million for space science, an 8.5 percent increase over the FY 2000 level of $2,192.8 million, although less than the request. The Senate bill does not specify a specific amount for space science. The NASA authorization bill, which is supposed to set guidelines for the appropriators, recommends $2,417.8 million. It has been passed by the House but not yet voted on by the Senate.) While the hearing was a positive one for space science, it is unclear whether it will have any measurable impact on funding for NASA's programs.
Audrey T. Leath