NASA Administrator Mike Griffin delivered a sobering budget reality check to astronomers Jan. 8,
saying things are tough across the agency and warning that lobbying to restart shelved programs could have unintended consequences.
The U.S. research community has
criticized the science portion of
NASA’s budget, complaining that astronomy and other
disciplines have suffered in the four years since the space agency set its sights
on returning to the Moon.
at the American Astronomical Society’s 211th
meeting in Austin, Texas,
Griffin reminded attendees that the extra money the White House pledged to NASA in the days that followed U.S. President George W. Bush’s Jan. 14, 2004, Vision for Space Exploration speech never materialized. Not only did NASA not get the additional $1 billion the White House had planned to inject into NASA over five years, the president’s
unveiled in early 2005 –
about two weeks after Griffin learned he had been selected to head the agency – reduced planned NASA expenditures a further $2 billion.
Shortly after being sworn in, Griffin was greeted by another surprise. Under his predecessor, Sean O’Keefe, the cost of flying the space shuttle through the end of the decade and retiring it after completing assembly of the international space station had been significantly underestimated. The five-year budget plan, which was sent to Congress along with NASA’s 2006 funding
erroneously forecast that shuttle spending would decline steadily from $4.5 billion annually down to $2.5 billion in its final full year of operations.
“I fixed that rather than allowing a budgetary sham to be continued, but it was a $4 billion problem, and it was a painful fix,” Griffin said.
Part of the fix entailed putting fewer dollars into NASA’s space exploration account and holding science spending flat through the end of the decade – a sharp departure from the robust growth in science spending promised under O’Keefe.
“Now, if only for the record, I have to point out that exactly the same budgetary reductions have been made across NASA’s other enterprises,” Griffin said. “Few scientists seem to know, or care, that the human spaceflight community has lost a third of its planned flights to [the space station],
that we are facing a five-year gap with no human space launch capability at all, that aeronautics is today operating at budget levels well below the historical average, or that technology development at NASA has been reduced to minimal levels. And, true, the science budget at NASA is not what was once promised.”
budget, signed into law Dec. 26 as part of a $555 billion omnibus spending bill, is
with about a third of that
going toward science.
NASA’s spending on astrophysics, after averaging about $1.5 billion annually for the past decade, is on the decline but still expected to average over $1.2 billion a year through 2012, according Griffin.
that plenty of world-class science is achievable at those levels
warned that the agency simply cannot afford to take on costly new astronomy projects until it finishes some of the missions still in development, chief among them the $4.5 billion James Webb Space Telescope slated for a 2013 launch.
In that vein
, Griffin had a warning for scientists who might be lobbying behind the scenes for the deployment of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), a bulky and expensive particle physics experiment built to be mounted to the outside of the international space station. NASA had
pledged to launch the AMS aboard the shuttle, but those plans changed after the 2003 Columbia accident. U.S. lawmakers who do not want
to see such an expensive piece of hardware remain on the ground used the omnibus bill to direct NASA to take another look at getting it launched.
Griffin said the costs involved in launching the AMS aboard an expendable rocket – which would require modifying the spacecraft either to operate as a free flyer or to perform an automated rendezvous with the space station – could easily cost $400 million.
“NASA lacks the budget allocation for such a mission, so should it be directed by Congress, it would have to come ‘out of hide’
– astrophysics hide,”
The same bill also directs NASA to nearly triple its spending this year on the Space Interferometry Mission, or
a flagship-class planet-hunting mission that the agency
last year demoted to a roughly $20 million-per-year technology development effort.
“The Congress does not dream up such direction on its own; clearly, external advocacy for SIM has been successful,” Griffin said. “If it stands, then the mission will be executed, and the remainder of the astrophysics portfolio will suffer.”
Griffin said canceling the Explorers program of small, competitively
selected astronomy missions or delaying either the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope or the Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope would be necessary if NASA is forced to initiate SIM now.
“I hope this is what you want, because it appears likely
to be what you will get,” he said.