The science community is understandably anxious about its standing with NASA, particularly after getting a sobering dose of budgetary reality during the recent American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington.
First there was a presentation by NASA officials including Anne Kinney, director of the astrophysics division of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate, who said projected annual budgets over the next several years fall well short of the funding needed for the current slate of approved projects. The next day, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin warned that the agency cannot sustain the 5- to 7-percent growth rates in science spending that have been the norm for the past several years.
Meanwhile, scientists in a position to know are worried that NASA will not request funding in 2007 for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), an airborne telescope project that — like so many other space agency programs — is over budget and behind schedule.
All this is in stark contrast to the five-year budget projections released a year ago with NASA’s 2006 funding request, which showed science accounts going up by 8 to 9 percent annually. The projections helped allay concerns that NASA’s plan to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020 would put the big squeeze on all other activities. With indications now that science-spending increases will only keep pace with inflation — if that — some in the astronomy community might feel they were hoodwinked into supporting the lunar exploration program.
Before crying foul, however, science advocates should take a deep breath and consider NASA’s predicament. The agency is facing a huge unanticipated bill for getting the space shuttle safely flying again and also is wrestling with cost growth on programs like the James Webb Space Telescope. At the same time, NASA needs to ramp up its investment in the hardware it will need to replace the space shuttle and return to the Moon.
On top of all that, NASA is not immune from the budgetary pressures facing all U.S. federal agencies these days — even the Pentagon.
Under these circumstances, it is not realistic to expect recent trends in space-science spending to continue in the near future. The fact that space-science spending is still slated to grow in the coming years — albeit at a far more modest rate than had been anticipated — means planetary and astronomical researchers continue to fare better than many of their counterparts in other fields.
For its part, NASA must acknowledge that it needs the support of the science community if its lunar exploration program is to become a reality. If NASA loses this constituency, the fragile political foundation upon which the human spaceflight endeavor rests could collapse altogether.
This means giving scientists meaningful input into the exploration planning process. Simply touting the Moon’s potential as a base for astronomical observations is not enough. It also means exercising tact and delicacy in dealing with the community, especially when delivering bad budgetary news. Unhelpful in this regard were comments at the American Astronomical Society conference by Mary Cleave, NASA’s associate administrator for space science, which suggested to some that there is a view within the space agency that only the White House and Congress matter.
Ms. Cleave’s remarks at the conference may well have been misinterpreted, but given the opportunity by a reporter to smooth any ruffled feathers, she did the opposite. The astronomers, she said, “think they are our customers and they own the program but we don’t work for them. We work for the president.”
Perhaps Ms. Cleave was merely making the point that NASA is an implementing agency and that setting research priorities is a prerogative that only the president and Congress can exercise in consultation with the relevant scientific advisory groups, and by extension those in the laboratories and universities. But the dismissive attitude has no place in any dialogue between NASA and a key constituency.
As for SOFIA, it would be regrettable if the White House makes any major decisions in advance of an April review that will yield some idea of what it will cost to complete the observatory. In other words, SOFIA funding should be included in the 2007 budget request when it is sent to Congress in February .
NASA already has sunk $330 million into the project, the German space agency has invested another $100 million, and the observatory is nearing completion. A 2004 independent review found that SOFIA is capable of research on a par with NASA’s great observatories but at a fraction of the cost.
On the other hand, the delays have without question diminished SOFIA’s scientific value: The Spitzer space telescope with which SOFIA was supposed to make joint observations likely will be out of action by the time the airborne observatory gets off the ground. Furthermore, by that time, much of the astronomy community’s time and energy will be consumed with Europe’s Herschel space telescope, which is supposed to launch around 2008.
Simply put, NASA needs more time and information to make a decision on SOFIA. This decision should be taken only after the results of the independent review are in, and in full consultation with Congress and the German space agency.