Given its lousy track record at estimating program costs – and its budget outlook in the years ahead – NASA’s decision to fund a dozen concept studies to improve its long-range planning for future astronomy and astrophysics missions makes a lot of sense.

Jon A. Morse, the new director of NASA’s astrophysics division, says his intent is to spend money early to develop mission concepts that will ensure that the National Research Council’s next 10-year astronomy plan leads to “an exciting, but executable” program. Work on that plan is scheduled to get under way in 2008.

The NRC’s last decadal survey, “Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium,” which was published in 2001, certainly was exciting, but the amount of money NASA ended up committing to the James Webb Space Telescope was far more than anyone had estimated at the beginning of the program. When the real cost of the Webb Telescope became apparent, it greatly reduced the amount of money in NASA’s astrophysics budget for missions the NRC had deemed important. To make matters worse, the cost of some of those programs, like the Space Interferometry Mission and the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, or LISA, also were


To prevent that from happening again – and perhaps avoid the outcry that occurred when the astronomy community learned that not everything in the last decadal survey was going to be fully funded – the agency plans to award study contracts of as much as $1 million each for several large missions and eight to 10 medium-class missions.

The results of those studies will be used to help develop a more realistic plan for the astrophysics budget, which at $1.3 billion a year represents about one-fifth of NASA’s science budget. NASA’s current budget projection shows that amount dropping to about $1.1 billion a year as spending on the $4.5 billion James Webb telescope begins winding down ahead of its planned 2013 launch.

While the concept studies are a good first step, NASA also needs to follow through by giving the NRC the money it needs to pay for independent cost estimates for the missions that make the short list for inclusion in the next decadal survey.

Better planning on NASA’s part and better cost estimating are critical to keep the agency from canceling worthwhile programs in the years ahead because it can no longer afford them. But Congress and the White House also need to step up and make sure NASA gets enough money to support all of the programs the Congress and executive branch have thrown on the agency’s plate.

In recent years, NASA has found it nearly impossible to make tough budget decisions stick. When the agency cut its aeronautics program, for example, members of Congress who like aviation programs insisted on restoring much the money that had been eliminated.

Congress and the Bush administration can start resolving this dilemma by approving an $18.5 billion 2008 budget for NASA, the amount currently in the amended Senate version of the Commerce, Justice, Science 2008 appropriations bill.

The authors of that bill, led by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), recognized that NASA’s budget has been overburdened by the cost of returning the shuttle fleet to service after the Columbia accident and developing the new rocket and crew capsule that will replace the shuttle fleet – though not until four years after the shuttle has completed its final mission.

The cost of those two efforts has put a huge squeeze on the money available for other agency programs like astrophysics. The Senate wisely recognized this and added $1 billion to NASA’s 2008 budget request to reimburse it for the post-Columbia shuttle costs.

Among other things, that money would keep the Ares and Orion shuttle replacement vehicles on track and give NASA some breathing room on other costs like the shuttle mission to refurbish the Hubble Space Telescope. The House should accept the Senate’s version and forward it to the president.

President Bush has threatened to veto the bill because it is more than $3 billion higher than the amount he requested. But the amount for NASA is what his own policies make necessary. The president made the right decision to retire the shuttle fleet and develop a new human space transportation system. It is now only right to adequately fund those efforts without placing too great a burden on other NASA programs or prolonging the gap between the shuttle’s retirement and the debut of Ares and Orion.