The outcries against the NASA budget request — many of which were voiced at the first public meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s science advisory subcommittee May 3-4 — have been growing since February when it was revealed that science spending would remain essentially flat, at around $5.3 billion through the end of the decade. By comparison, the five-year forecast for space science spending that accompanied NASA’s 2006 budget request last year was $3 billion higher. NASA now wants to shift that $3 billion to the shuttle program over the next five years.
As a result, a number of science missions have been deferred or canceled, and funding for scientists engaged in research and analysis of data from NASA’s existing scientific satellites also has been significantly reduced.
“The mix needs to be shifted towards the smaller missions,” said Peter Eisenhardt, a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “I am well aware of the importance of flagship missions … but we need the smaller missions as well. The result is phenomenal science at a bargain price,” Eisenhardt said during the advisory meeting, which was held at the University of Maryland Inn and Conference Center in College Park, Md.
William Bottke, a scientist with the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, said there is not enough funding for research and analysis in the budget.
“Sending spacecraft to other worlds without analyzing the results is tourism, not science,” Bottke said.
His sentiments were echoed by many others in the community who spoke about how research and analysis benefited their particular area of study, such as solar physics.
“Research and analysis is probably the most efficiently spent money the agency has,” said Glenn Mason, a heliophysicist with Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. “It’s heavily competed and broadly revised because grants don’t last long.”
NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, who addressed the science subcommittee May 3, said commitments to the international space station and the president’s Vision For Space Exploration drove the need for a smaller budget than the scientific community expected, though, he noted, it still contains a 1.5-percent increase above the 2006 budget.
Griffin said that he believed when he took office that he would be able to allocate an increase in funding to NASA’s Science Mission Directorate that was comparable to any increase the agency received as a whole. “I made a mistake there,” Griffin told the group.
Under the 2007 budget request, NASA’s Explorer missions, which contain a variety of scientific investigations, are essentially doomed, Mason predicted.
“The Explorer line is going out of business,” he said.
The committee and scientific community’s sentiments were echoed by representatives of the National Academies’ National Research Council (NRC).
According to a pre-publication copy of a recent NRC report, the council maintains that NASA lacks the resources necessary to maintain a vigorous science program, complete the international space station and return humans to the Moon.
“NASA should move immediately to correct the problems caused by reductions in the base of research and analysis programs, small missions and initial technology work on future missions before the essential pipeline of human capital and technology is irrevocably disrupted,” the report read.
The report’s advice struck a chord with U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (Md.), the senior democrat on the Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations subcommittee, who was among those on the committee to request the review.
“Unfortunately, this report confirms what I have long feared — that science programs are threatened by budget cuts and poor planning. … This should be a wake-up call for NASA and the White House,” Mikulski said in a May 4 statement. “I call upon the Bush administration, which proposes to cut billions from NASA’s science budget over the next five years, to rethink its priorities and restore balance to our space program.”
The American Astronomical Society called the budget “disappointing” in a statement May 3 as well, saying the budget comes without consultation from the scientific community at large.
“The sudden and wide-ranging retrenchments in this budget proposal would halt, defer or postpone programs to explore the solar system, to observe other solar systems as they form, to detect planets around other starts, to measure gravitational waves from astronomical events, to probe the edges of black holes and to seek the nature of the dark energy,” the statement said.
When Griffin addressed the group of scientists the day before, another topic of conversation was the relationship between NASA’s planned mission to the Moon and scientific studies. Scientists questioned both whether Science Directorate funds would be diverted to lunar science missions, and the validity of lunar science missions in the first place.
Griffin said the focus of the lunar missions were for human space flight, though the endeavors would likely come with opportunities for scientific exploration.
“We do not return to the Moon to do science,” Griffin said. He said that Science Mission Directorate dollars were not being allocated for lunar missions right now, and that lunar science projects would not be developed if there was not a sufficient call for their need.
“The choice is up to you to what extent you wish to participate,” Griffin said.
NASA advisory committee members are required to have any recommendations they might have in writing before its next meeting May 17-18.