The dichotomy between the plethora of exciting scientific results today
and a possible dearth of results in the future, if current budget trends
continue, was the subject of a May 2 hearing of the House S&T Subcommittee
on Space and Aeronautics. Scientists representing several space science
disciplines warned that NASA's FY 2008 budget request and future funding
plans will be detrimental to its science programs. They particularly
decried cuts to Research and Analysis (R&A) funding and to suborbital,
small- and medium-sized science missions that provide a career path
for young investigators. The hearing, which focused on space science
programs within NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD), also highlighted
concerns over the increasing costs of access to space, the upcoming
elimination of an important launch vehicle for smaller missions, poor
historical estimates of mission costs, and the burden of oversight and
risk reduction. Life and microgravity science programs were not discussed,
nor was earth science, which will be the topic of a forthcoming subcommittee
NASA's fiscal year 2008 request for its space science programs is $4.0
billion, with $1.4 billion for Planetary Science, $1.1 billion for Heliophysics,
and $1.6 billion for Astrophysics. According to subcommittee chairman
Mark Udall (D-CO), the Administration has cut another $4 billion over
five years from the Science Mission Directorate's funding profile, compared
to its intentions at the time President Bush announced his Vision for
Space Exploration. Ranking Minority Member Ken Calvert (R-CA) pointed
out that "severe budget challenges" facing NASA's human spaceflight
program forced the agency to "remove future budget growth"
from its science programs "in order to address more pressing needs."
The Administration plans to restrict budget growth for NASA science
programs to one percent per year over the next few years, which is an
effective reduction given inflation and growing launch costs (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2007/016.html
for details of the FY 2008 request). Several of the witnesses expressed
disappointment that NASA science was not included in the President's
American Competitiveness Initiative, which calls for increased funding
for basic research in certain physical sciences areas.
In their prepared statements, the four non-NASA witnesses gave notably
similar assessments of the health of their fields. "For each of
the disciplines in SMD, there is a sobering downward trend in missions,"
said Lennard Fisk of the University of Michigan, and Chair of the National
Research Council's Space Studies Board. Garth Illingworth of the University
of California, Santa Cruz, stated, "If one takes a near-term view...the
mission mix in Astrophysics looks fairly good.... [But] the new mission
pipeline is strikingly empty beyond 2009." Daniel Baker of the
University of Colorado, Boulder, added, "At present, the Heliophysics
Division...has a number of exciting projects... Beyond this good news,
however, there are significant concerns." "The reason why
we aren't all celebrating," said Joseph Burns of Cornell University,
"is because, while America's planetary exploration program is indeed
doing well currently, its future is quite uncertain." Burns went
on to point out that "at present no planetary flagship mission
is in development, an unprecedented situation."
Testifying before the subcommittee for the first time as NASA's Associate
Administrator for SMD was Alan Stern. Stern brings to the position a
background in astrophysics and planetary science, and experience as
a principal investigator on NASA science missions. He was lauded by
the other witnesses as an excellent choice for the role. Stern said
that one of his first actions in his new position was to establish an
SMD Office of Chief Scientist "to provide independent technical
analysis and advice" regarding science issues. His statement highlighted
the role of science in the Vision for Space Exploration: "I am
an enthusiastic advocate of human exploration and believe that a strong
science program...is important to maximizing the benefits to the Nation
of such human exploration." Stern's top goals for the next five
years include making "strong progress" in advancing the priorities
of the decadal surveys for each discipline; improving management and
efficiency to free up more money for science missions; and increasing
the scientific yield of the Vision for Space Exploration. "I am
committed," he stated, to "bringing to NASA and the Congress
the best possible slate of programs and program success within the significant
resources already available."
Stern's concerns aligned with those expressed by the other witnesses.
All worried about rising launch costs, inadequate mission cost-estimation
procedures, and the need to increase support for R&A and maintain
a mix of small- and medium-sized missions. They agreed that small, inexpensive
projects such as those utilizing balloons, sounding rockets, or aircraft
were invaluable for preparing NASA's future workforce, ensuring that
young scientists and engineers get hands-on experience. Illingworth
remarked that R&A was "a grab bag" of many elements, including
theory, technology development, workforce training and data analysis.
Asked whether a certain percentage of a project budget was appropriate
for R&A, the witnesses replied that it was discipline-dependent.
Baker pointed out that the Science Mission Directorate plans to undertake
a systematic review of this issue.
Illingworth also testified that, in the past, mission cost estimates
were often "unrealistic and incomplete," leading to "a
gap between what we wanted to do and what we can do." He said this
concern has been recognized by both the agency and the science community.
Stern commented that NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has instituted
new policies requiring higher confidence levels for project costs, and
allowing principal investigators to be removed from heading missions
if cost growth gets out of control. Stern also suggested that principal
investigators consider reducing their research and teaching workloads
during the critical stages of mission development. Baker pointed out
that launch costs could increase dramatically when Boeing phases out
its Delta II launch vehicle. The panelists agreed that NASA needs to
find a way to maintain such a critical payload launch capability. They
also suggested that the bureaucratic overhead involved in mission risk
reduction, while appropriate to manned missions, was perhaps unnecessary
for unmanned missions and led to additional cost growth.
In response to Stern's contention that available funding could be leveraged
and stretched further by increasing international collaborations, the
other witnesses raised the issue of ITAR export control regulations.
Burns said they "hamstring" collaborations, Baker said they
were "inappropriately stifling," and Fisk called them "a
nightmare" and "probably the single biggest impediment"
to international space science collaborations.
Udall captured the sense of the hearing when he said, "at the
end of the day... if we are going to ask our nation's space science
program to undertake challenging and meaningful initiatives, we are
going to need to provide the necessary resources." He and full
Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) sent an April 19 letter to the
President, outlining concerns "about the mismatch between the resources
being provided to [NASA] and the tasks that it is being asked to undertake."
They continued, "We echo the views of other members of Congress
who have expressed their interest in meeting with you on this important
matter, and we hope that there will be the opportunity for all of us
to meet with you in the near future to discuss how best to realize our