Ben Franklin, addressing the early states during a time of revolution, said: “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we will all hang separately.” NASA Administrator Michael Griff in recently challenged the astronomical community with this quote, referring to his perception that we have acted in self-interest, worrying only about the funding for our own missions and projects and ignoring the fact that NASA does much more than space-based astronomy, solar system exploration, and research on
sun and its impacts on Earth.
Dr. Griffin believes that the space science community ignores other aspects of NASA’s mission and works outside of our own community-based, priority-setting processes to further particular missions with directed
congressional language. He went further, saying in reference to the scientific community:
“… from my first days at NASA, as with one voice, there has been a single concern – the budget is not what once was promised – and little further discussion has been possible.”
I recognize the issues that Administrator Griffin raises, but I also point out that it is only natural that the space science community looks to its own interests first. There is considerable anxiety about the budget for space science – it is not what once was promised.
The science community is newly and traumatically dismayed with the precipitous failure of the Competitiveness Initiative and the America COMPETES Act that would have set the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science and the National Institute of Standards and Technology on a track to double their budgets over the next 10 years.
This initiative was sacrificed in the passage of the omnibus funding bill in December after great, encouraging, bipartisan support. Yet many of us have spoken –
some personally to Dr. Griffin –
of our general concern for the situation in which NASA and other science funding agencies find themselves.
In a column in
the American Astronomical Society newsletter, I wrote:
The Columbia disaster put the state of NASA, its science programs, and the human spaceflight program under a bright focus. As a result, NASA has been tasked to do too much with too few resources. Astronomers have been traumatized as plans on which they have built their careers and planned the careers of their students have been constricted or cancel
ed. Astronomers do not do these things because they will lead to immense riches. They do them because their hearts and souls are captured by the wonder at the
universe they are privileged to explore. That is why they leap to the defense of projects, long in the planning, and consuming of their scientific passions, that are threatened with cut-backs and cancellation.”
Yes, our community has strong self-interest and concern for budgets, but we understand that those interests and concerns are reflected in a broader context.
Over the past decade, the American Astronomical Society has actively supported the top line budgets for all the agencies that fund astronomy, primarily NASA,
the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy’s
Office of Science. We
also have highlighted the value of our own unique contribution to NASA because that is what we know best. As we lay plans for the next National Research Council-sponsored decadal survey in astronomy and astrophysics, we are focusing on the need to have accurate cost estimates and to reconsider facilities and missions blessed by past decadal surveys in the context of new opportunities. This is a healthy response to the current fiscal and scientific environment, not a single-minded focus on past promises abrogated.
We will increase our efforts for
2009 to restore the budget enhancements associated with the Competitiveness Initiative. We think that NASA science should be part of that initiative to maintain the scientific and engineering edge the United States
has long enjoyed. Only by supporting our agencies broadly and in union with other interest groups can our particular discipline succeed in the long run.
The American Astronomical Society with the support of all of its divisions has just issued a policy resolution stressing the importance of community-based priority setting. We restated the importance of our multi-decade tradition of prioritizing facilities and missions and emphasized the importance of respecting those priorities. The last thing our science, or NASA, needs is directed
congressional language that disrupts the priorities we work so hard to establish. There is no more fickle a prioritizer than our own legislative system.
now is facing a challenging and exciting future. While NASA’s projected budget for 2005-2012 has contracted by
almost $12 billion in
reductions and unplanned expenses,
NASA has grand plans. NASA is reinventing manned spaceflight from the ground up and developing significant new launch capabilities for use by the whole NASA family.
I have great admiration for the new team Dr. Griffin has put into place to direct space science. Alan Stern, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, is energetically trying to do more with his flat budget. NASA
also is committed to the completion of the space station to fulfill international obligations. Though financially painful to the whole agency, the completion of the station will allow the start of a new day in human spaceflight while ensuring that future international partners can trust the United States
to stand by its promises. This has obvious ramifications for all future international efforts in space.
Ben Franklin used his startling quote more than 200 years ago to rally the early states to defend themselves. The coming years
likely will see a tightening of the federal budget. This will challenge all federal agencies. Those with supportive communities that work in unison will succeed. Those with divisive communities that scramble for funds while disregarding larger issues will fail. The space science community does not want to fail. We do not want NASA to fail. To succeed, we must all hang together, or we shall certainly all hang separately.
J. Craig Wheeler is president of the American Astronomical Society in Washington.