A panel of experts who help set NASA’s science priorities told the House Science Committee they would be willing to scale back or delay big, expensive flagship missions including the James Webb Space Telescope in order to put more funding into research and analysis, and small and medium missions promising higher flight rates.

Scientists are in an uproar over NASA’s decision to significantly cut back on the growth in science spending to fund among other things the space shuttle’s return to flight, completion of the international space station and cost overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope.

While NASA’s $16.792 billion budget request for 2007 includes $5.3 billion for conducting science, a 1.5-percent increase, the science community previously had been told the NASA science budget would rise at a rate 8 percent to 9 percent annually through the end of the decade. They also were promised by NASA Administrator Michael Griffin last year that science funding would not be diverted to pay shuttle or space station bills.

The five-year NASA budget plan that accompanied the agency’s 2007 budget request provides $3.1 billion less for science through 2010 than previously promised. Grant funding for research scientists, facing reductions in 2006, would be cut another 15 percent to 20 percent next year. The size of the cut would vary from discipline to discipline.

Griffin has said the change of plans was unavoidable given the twin priorities of completing the space station and building a space shuttle replacement capable of carrying astronauts to the Moon. Griffin reiterated that point during a March 2 press conference at Kennedy Space Center, where he was meeting with his international counterparts to approve a new 16-flight space station assembly plan

“Obviously we would like to be able to do more rather than less, and we think the science program has had a tremendous history of returning great results,” Griffin said. “But we are in a period in history, following the loss and the recovery from the Columbia accident, where the human spaceflight program, to which we are also committed, needs help.”

Earlier that same day in Washington at the House Science Committee’s second NASA hearing in as many weeks, the space agency’s budget priorities came in for a sound drubbing from a panel of influential scientists.

Nobel laureate Joseph K. Taylor, co-chairman of the National Research Council’s Decadal Survey for Astronomy and Astrophysics, said NASA’s budget ax is falling the heaviest on small, competitively selected missions and grants that pay for scientists to utilize the data streaming back from spacecraft already in service.

House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) said he and some of his colleagues would be fighting to increase NASA’s science budget for 2007, but victory was far from assured. Boehlert asked the panel of scientists what trade-offs they would be willing to make to add money to NASA’s research and analysis accounts in the absence of new additional funding.

“Yes or no, would you be willing to move money out of your flagship program to put more money into research and analysis?” Boehlert asked. “That’s the kind of choices we face.”

Taylor said he would favor revisiting the priority assigned to two of NASA’s flagship astronomy missions, the James Webb and Hubble Space telescopes.

“If no new resources can be added, we’re in a tough situation and reassessment needs to be made about the levels of funding that are going into two things basically now: both the Hubble Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope,” Taylor said. “Those have so weakened the other parts of the program that seem to me to be so essential to the future health of this scientific area that if nothing can be done about those costs, one needs to reassess whether the programs should be continued the way they are going now.”

Wesley Huntress, a former NASA associate administrator for space science and a member of the National Research Council’s Decadal Survey for Solar System Exploration, said flagship missions should take a back seat to smaller, less-costly efforts in “very hard budget times.”

“Consistent with the decadal survey, the priorities in the program under stress are first, research program; second, technology program; third, small missions; fourth, medium missions; and last, flagship missions,” Huntress said.

Huntress did not offer up a flagship mission he would scale back or delay because NASA’s solar system exploration vision does not currently have one in development. Although NASA was urged by Congress last year to request funding for a Europa orbiter mission, the agency’s 2007 request would not fund a new start.

Huntress said he could support NASA’s decision, as long as the agency does not give short shrift to technology development programs aimed at enabling future missions.

“If we are ever to recover from loss of a flagship, we have to invest in our technological readiness,” he said. “And so delay in the Europa mission, if that’s what it comes to, I believe is the right thing to do but not at the expense of investing in the technologies that will ultimately allow you to do such a mission.”

Berrien Moore, University of New Hampshire professor who is co-chairing the National Research Council’s Decadal Survey for Earth Sciences, told lawmakers that the Earth science community’s big, flagship mission already has been delayed two-and-a-half years under NASA’s 2007 budget plan. But if something more had to give to free up funding for research and analysis, Moore said, he would favor revisiting the requirements for the Landsat Data Continuity Mission to see if there might be “a cheaper way” of accomplishing the mission.

NASA intends to release a solicitation this summer for a free-flying Landsat spacecraft that government and industry officials said is expected to cost on the order of $400 million.

Mary Cleave, NASA associate administrator for science, told lawmakers that while she thinks the agency has put forward a well-balanced science spending plan, the agency is open to further advice.

“We did take our best shot at putting this budget together,” Cleave said. “It was difficult but it may not be the best shot we could get with everybody’s help.”

Comments: bberger@space.com