astronomers and astrophysicists soon will begin work on a new 10-year plan meant to help NASA and the National Science Foundation prioritize
federal spending on their discipline in the decade ahead.

The National Research Council announced Sept. 11 the selection of Stanford University Professor Roger Blanford to chair the so-called decadal survey committee due to meet for the first time in December to begin sorting through competing proposals to utilize increasingly scarce U.S. astronomy research dollars. The National Research Council currently is seeking scientists to fill out the committee and its various panels.

The last such decadal survey, published in 2001, recommended nine space-based astronomy missions for NASA to tackle by 2010. To date, NASA has launched just one of those missions, the recently renamed Fermi Gamma-ray Large Area Telescope, which just completed its on-orbit checkout following a June launch. Another recommended mission, the Solar Dynamics Observatory, is scheduled to launch in January.

Jon Morse, director of NASA’s roughly $1.3 billion astronomy and astrophysics division here, said in a Sept. 16 interview that unrealistic cost estimates and overly optimistic budget projections combined to heap considerably more projects on the
space agency’s plate than it could possibly carry out.

He also said any assessment of NASA’s astronomy accomplishments this decade should take into consideration the agency’s funding of ongoing missions, including Hubble Space Telescope, which is about to be upgraded, and research and analysis spending, the lifeblood of university-based scientists.

Morse said grading NASA solely on how many of the nine missions it has carried out since 2001 would be a “simplistic view that cheats the actual support the field has gotten through the decade.”

Still, Morse said NASA hopes to avoid some of the faulty assumptions that fed into the 2001 decadal survey and is willing to spend the money needed to get some better upfront cost estimates for candidate missions.

For example, Morse said the astronomy community’s understanding of the technical and budgetary requirements for Constellation X, the Laser Interferometry Space Antenna and the Space Interferometry Mission – three unfulfilled priorities from the 2001 decadal survey – has matured considerably thanks to NASA studies and technology investments.

In addition, NASA’s astronomy and astrophysics division is funding 19 mission concept studies in order to flesh out the technical and budgetary aspects of projects that might be considered by the decadal survey committee.

“Instead of just having the advocates come in and say, ‘here’s what we believe the cost is’…we are trying to have independent cost estimates done both for the mature and more immature concept.”

This time out, the National Research Council also will have a budget to pay for independent cost estimates for candidate missions, much as it did in 2007 when it hired San Diego-based SAIC to price the five missions being evaluated by the council’s Beyond Einstein Program Assessment Committee on behalf of NASA. The panel recommended that the Joint Dark Energy Mission be first in NASA’s queue.

Aside from government footing the bill for more rigorous cost estimates, Morse said NASA suggested that the National Research Council have the decadal survey committee consider both conservative and more optimistic budget scenarios as it ponders astronomy priorities for the next decade.

NASA’s current five-year budget plan shows annual astronomy spending dropping to a low of $1 billion in 2011 before it starts to trend upwards again. Morse told astronomers last November they would be wise to assume no more than inflationary increases for the decade ahead.

Harvard University Professor John Huchra, president of the American Astronomical Society, agreed that better cost estimates are needed this time out, but said low-ball estimates were not entirely to blame for NASA and the National Science Foundation not making a bigger dent in the 2001 priorities.

“At the time of the last decadal survey the economy was in great shape, there was real talk about doubling the [National Science Foundation] budget, the NASA astrophysics budget was going up…a number of things led us to be optimistic.”

If those trends had continued, Huchra said, the
United States
would have made more progress on the 2001 decadal survey recommendations, overly optimistic cost estimates aside.

“We probably wouldn’t have done everything, but we would have done a lot of it,” he said in a Sept. 17 telephone interview.

said one of the complaints about the last decadal survey is that there was not enough community involvement, resulting in big decisions being made by a comparatively small number of astronomers.

“We intend to fix that,” Huchra said, noting that NASA and the National Science Foundation are putting up a “much better budget” to ensure wider participation.

also would like to see the survey committee tackle the issue of retiring capabilities that have outlived their peak usefulness.

“Astronomy – especially ground-based astronomy – has reached the stage where we need to consider what we might stop doing, what we might close down,” Huchra said. “NASA does not have the problem as badly as the National Science Foundation does since NASA missions by definition have a limited lifetime.

“But the ground-based facilities … are things that were built 50 years ago when the [National Science Foundation] first came into existence. Those telescopes and facilities, while still useful, are no longer forefront. If we do need to free up operational resources to build new facilities that is something the survey is going to have to look at.”

The National Research Council is expected to deliver the new decadal survey results to NASA and the National Science Foundation in 2010.