Status Report

AIP FYI #114: House Subcommittee Reviews NASA’s Office of Space Science

By SpaceRef Editor
September 20, 2000
Filed under

A September 13 hearing of the House Science Space and Aeronautics
Subcommittee showed that many Members of Congress are ready to
put NASA’s Mars program failures behind them and are looking
forward to great achievements from the agency’s Office of Space
Science. “Despite a number of problems,” said subcommittee
chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), “I believe NASA’s space science
program remains its greatest success.” The hearing profiled the
agency’s FY 2000 space science achievements and looked at the
current status of some projects.

NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Science, Edward Weiler,
reviewed highlights of the past year, including the Chandra X-Ray
Observatory’s contribution to resolving the origin of the diffuse
x-ray background and the Hubble Space Telescope’s role in
estimating the age of the universe. The Administration’s FY 2001
request of $2.4 billion for his office (a 9.4 percent increase
over current funding), he said, “supports a robust and varied
program.” He also reported that NASA was reviewing its Mars
program on the basis of several recent assessments (see FYIs #43
and #81) and “checking off every single recommendation.” He
expects to brief Congress on this later in the fall.

Claude Canizares, the former chair of the National Research
Council’s (NRC) Space Studies Board, reviewed a number of the
Board’s recent reports on space science. He praised the Office
of Space Science’s strategic planning as “very effective in
optimizing” the science research program. He also reiterated the
Board’s consensus that “the major thrust toward [the faster,
better, cheaper approach] has generally been extremely positive
for space science,” but declared that the size and cost of
missions should be dictated by the science objectives. Canizares
cited a number of challenges still to be faced in properly
utilizing the faster, better, cheaper concept, including the
importance of new technology development and the need for
adapting methods of international collaboration. He also
mentioned concerns that strict satellite export control
regulations are hindering international collaborations and some
other space science missions, and urged that NASA work with the
Departments of State and Commerce to resolve this issue. He also
encouraged NASA to do more to foster the health of the space
science community, “more as NSF does for areas under its
purview.” Joseph Taylor, co-chair of the NRC’s Astronomy and
Astrophysics Survey Committee, discussed his group’s recent
report (see FYI #62) and concurred “that NASA’s space science
program is behind many of the agency’s greatest successes.”

Much of the questioning revolved around how NASA evaluates what
missions are worthwhile, and when they should be extended,
concluded, or canceled. When Rohrabacher asked about reports
that the Pluto mission had recently been canceled, Weiler
explained that he had not terminated it but temporarily stopped
work on it. He testified that since he took over the office two
years ago, the costs of the Pluto and Europa missions had
doubled. Believing that Europa was a higher priority, he decided
to continue that project and then revisit the Pluto mission with
the remaining money.

Weiler reported that NASA was “absolutely going to face cost
escalation” on many of the missions initiated before he became
associate administrator, but added “that’s not necessarily a bad
thing. We found out what happens when we [constrain costs] too
much,” he said: “We crashed two missions.” Weiler informed the
subcommittee that his office “will not have the program next year
that it had two years ago.” It will be “less aggressive,” he
stated, “but may be doable.”

Asked about justification for the proposed new Living with a Star
initiative to study the sun (which House VA/HUD appropriators did
not fund), all three witnesses supported the project. Taylor
said that it “fared quite well” against competing priorities in
the astronomy survey, and Canizares added that in the strategic
planning process, it “came out very much worthy” of funding.
Weiler was also asked about the decision to terminate the Extreme
Ultraviolet Explorer mission. He noted that the mission’s
primary objectives had been completed in 1996, and described
NASA’s independent Senior Review process to assess the value of
extending missions. Reviews in 1998 and again in 2000 had found
the additional science to be gained from the mission “non-
compelling,” he testified, so the decision was made to terminate
it. “Now that we’re doing more missions,” Weiler warned, “this
issue is going to come up more and more.” Canizares strongly
supported NASA’s review process for evaluating whether to extend
on-going missions or fund new ones.

The other major subject of discussion was funding for the
Research and Analysis (R&A), and Data Analysis (DA) portions of
space science missions. There has been a history of concern
within the science community that these accounts, which largely
support university-based scientific planning for and analysis of
the missions, have long been underfunded. Explaining that he
inherited virtually flat R&A and DA budgets, Weiler said it has
been “a personal campaign of mine” to find more funding for them.
He added that he was “carving out of my own budget” to initiate a
three percent annual increase for R&A, and that he anticipated
nine to 10 percent annual growth in the combined R&A and DA
outyear budgets.

By the end of the hearing, Rohrabacher seemed satisfied with the
explanations of the process used by the Office of Space Science
to evaluate new missions or justify extending old ones. He
concluded the hearing by thanking the panel members for “the good
work all of you have done.”

This authorization hearing comes at a time when House and Senate
conferees have just come to agreement on a NASA authorization
bill (H.R. 1654) for the next three fiscal years, and
appropriators are struggling to finish up their funding bills
before the start of the new fiscal year in less than two weeks.
(The House VA/HUD appropriations bill would provide $2,378.8
million for space science, an 8.5 percent increase over the FY
2000 level of $2,192.8 million, although less than the request.
The Senate bill does not specify a specific amount for space
science. The NASA authorization bill, which is supposed to set
guidelines for the appropriators, recommends $2,417.8 million.
It has been passed by the House but not yet voted on by the
Senate.) While the hearing was a positive one for space science,
it is unclear whether it will have any measurable impact on
funding for NASA’s programs.

Audrey T. Leath
Public Information Division
The American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3094

SpaceRef staff editor.