A panel of leading scientists praised NASA during a March 13 congressional hearing for making the best of a bad budget situation. But the same scientists warned
lawmakers that the U.S. space program faces troubled times ahead if it is not given more money.
Fisk, chairman of the National Research Council’s Space Studies Board, told the House Science and Technology space and aeronautics subcommittee that NASA should be applauded for sending Congress a 2009 budget request that includes an initial down
payment for several new Earth-observing satellites, a commitment to launch a roughly $2 billion orbiter to the Saturn or Jupiter systems by 2017, and more funding for the research and analysis grants that are the lifeblood of the scientific community.
But Fisk said he was troubled that NASA was being asked to take on these and other laudable new projects with a science budget not expected to keep pace with inflation over the next five years.
“All of these positive features of the [Science Mission Directorate]
program have been accomplished within a fixed budget envelope, which is currently, and for the next few years, growing at only 1 percent per year,” Fisk told the subcommittee. “This is a problem. Some of the new starts in the budget come at the expense of other programs that are displaced or deferred.”
Chairman Mark Udall (D-Colo.), concurred with Fisk’s basic forecast and its likely consequences for a science program he referred to as one of NASA’s “crown jewels.”
“There will be little new money. Instead, there will be a continuing need to transfer
funds across the science accounts to support each new initiative – an approach some might call ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul,’” Udall said. “I’m very concerned that such an approach will not prove sustainable or credible.” Rep. Tom Feeney (
Fla.), the subcommittee’s ranking Republican member, praised NASA for adding money to its research and analysis counts, taking steps to increase suborbital research flights, and getting started on a list of recommended Earth science missions.
But he also said that he was concerned NASA was being asked “to do too much with too little.”
The hearing, which focused on NASA’s science programs, was the latest held to examine U.S
. President George W. Bush’s proposed 2009 budget for the space agency. That request, which was sent
to Congress in February, seeks $17.6 billion for NASA, an increase of 1.8 percent. The Science Mission Directorate’s share of that amount would be $4.4 billion, an increase of around 1 percent after factoring in various accounting changes NASA made at Congress’s behest.
One of the big winners in NASA’s science budget was Earth science, which stands to receive an extra $540 million over the next five years to get started on a slate of 17 Earth science missions a National Academy of Sciences panel has recommended the United States undertake by 2020.
Berrien Moore, a University of New Hampshire scientist who co-chaired the National Academy’s so-called decadal survey panel, said he was encouraged by the agency’s renewed emphasis on Earth science, but pointed out that NASA’s plans fall far short of the extra $500 million each year the panel deemed necessary for revitalizing the agency’s Earth-observing satellite system. Moore noted that under NASA’s plan, it will have flown off only three of the 17 recommended missions for 2010-2020. “That’s not adequate,” he said.
He urged lawmakers to fund Earth science over and above the president’s request, but cautioned them against taking the money from NASA’s other science division, a tactic he called unsustainable.
Most of the additional money NASA plans to spend on Earth science in the near
term came out of the Mars exploration program, which is starting to ramp down its efforts on the 2009 Mars Science Laboratory, a nuclear-powered rover expected to cost in excess of $1 billion by the time it launches. NASA also recently postponed the launch of its next Mars Scout mission two years to 2013 because of an irregularity in the source selection process.
Alan Stern, NASA associate administrator for science, defended shifting funds away from its highly successful and extremely popular Mars program on the grounds that its budget merely was returning to its “historical average” after coming down from a period of peak funding for the Mars Science Lab.
Steven Squyres, the Cornell University professor serving as principal investigator for NASA’s long-lasting Mars Exploration Rovers, praised Stern for being responsive to many of the science community’s complaints about previous budget plans, telling lawmakers that the 2009 budget “contains a lot of good news for solar system exploration.”
But he said the budget falls short where Mars is concerned. Under NASA’s plan, the Mars budget would drop from nearly $555 million this year to $387 million next year and continue to decline through 2012.
Stern said the budget plan is adequate to fly the Mars Science Laboratory in 2009, a nearly $500 million orbiter in 2013 to study the planet’s upper atmosphere, a still-to-be selected 2016 mission costing upwards of $850 million, and a long-desired Mars Sample Return mission to launch around 2018-2020.
Squyres, however, said he does not think NASA has budgeted enough money to carry out the proposed program.
“I base this statement not just on my own intuition, but on a Mars program architecture study in which I participated recently that was chartered by NASA to respond to a request from the Office of Management and Budget,” he said.
said NASA’s $3.5 billion cost target for a Mars Sample Return missions is probably off by an amount comparable to a separate flagship-class mission. He also said that the $68 million NASA plans to spend over the next five years on architecture studies and some advanced technology development for the sample return mission is only about a fourth of what the experts say the agency should be spending. “We concluded that either sample return would have to be slipped well beyond 2020 or that the missions in 2013 and 2016 would have to be eliminated,” Squyres said.
Stern said NASA has budgeted enough money to do the 2013 and 2016 missions and sample return by 2020 if the science community is willing to prioritize, noting that the 2016 mission need not cost the entire $850 million wedge the agency has set aside for it.
“If you want a smaller mission in 2016 and a steeper ramp to Mars Sample Return, that $850 million is out there and it can be used for technology development,” Stern said. “If on the other hand the community asks to use the entire $850 mission on the science mission, then Mars Sample Return is going to have to wait.”
urged lawmakers to find the money to bump the Mars exploration program back up to around $625 million.
“Most of the news in this budget is good for the solar system exploration program,” Squyres said. “If you can fix this one serious problem, the cuts to the
Mars exploration program, you can make this a space science budget that the nation can really be proud of.”
When Congress returns in late March from a two-week recess, NASA’s authorization committees are due to begin drafting a new authorization bill for the agency.
The last such bill, enacted in 2005, is coming up for renewal. That bill broadly endorsed NASA’s plan to retire the space shuttle and build new vehicles capable of going to the Moon, but it also insisted that the agency maintain a balanced program, something Fisk and others have said the agency has not been able to do in the face of less-than-promised increases.
“We are four years into the Vision for Space Exploration announced by President Bush in 2004. So far the money that was promised to execute the vision has not been provided and it’s hard to say that the Vision has generated much excitement particularly among the young who are expected to benefit most from the future the vision promises,” Fisk said. “I encourage you to ask whether there was a flaw in the vision which we did not realize at the time. The vision is about the future. Extending our civilization into space, but there is little of immediate concern to the taxpayers.”
Fisk urged lawmakers to consider tweaking NASA’s vision as they set to work on the authorization bill, which sets policy guidance and spending limits for the agency, but provides no funding.
“And so I encourage you as I would encourage the next administration to provide NASA with a role that is not only about the future but that is also important in the present,” Fisk said. “It could be a geopolitical role that improves our national image. It could be a role that improves our competitive position, it could be a reemphasis on those programs within NASA that are of demonstrable interest to the taxpayer like Earth science or aeronautics.”