Status Report

Space Studies Board News – January – March 2007: Comments from Lennard Fisk

By SpaceRef Editor
April 24, 2007
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Space Studies Board News – January – March 2007: Comments from Lennard Fisk

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In January, the new Congress finally passed the budget for FY2007. The budget was based on the Continuing Resolution that had been in effect since last October, and so NASA was denied the increase over FY2006 that it had expected. In early February, the President proposed his budget for FY2008, and the screws on NASA tightened yet again.

The requested FY2008 budget for NASA is essentially what was promised to the agency in FY2007. In that sense the Administration is consistent. However, essentially none of the problems were solved that were identified in the FY2007 requested budget, and are now exacerbated with an enacted budget for FY2007 equal to the FY2006 budget. (In the newsletter articles that follow, the Chairs of several of the standing committees of the Space Studies Board and other Board members express their personal opinions on the impact of the FY2008 budget request on their disciplines.)

NASA has made it clear that its number one priority is to build the Ares rocket and its Orion spacecraft to replace the Shuttle and serve as the vehicle to return us to the Moon. Left to its own devices, NASA may well have raided other parts of the agency budget in FY2007 to maintain schedule. Congress, however, fenced off funding for science and aeronautics in the enacted FY2007 budget. The result is that Ares and Orion have a serious funding shortfall in FY2007 and the schedule cannot be maintained. The gap between the planned retirement of the Shuttle and operational flights of Ares and Orion is growing, causing a range of concerns to NASA, from an inability to re-supply the Space Station, to the retention of a skilled workforce.

NASA’s single-minded focus on Ares and Orion is evident in its treatment of the life and physical sciences in microgravity (i.e., the users of the Space Station) and of lunar robotic missions. These programs, both within the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, are not fenced from the needs of Ares and Orion. The community of researchers in microgravity science has been decimated to a degree unparalleled in the history of U.S. science. In most of the subdisciplines of this field there has been an 80% reduction in the number of external research grants, with the resulting layoffs of countless students and postdoctoral fellows. Also, the lunar robotic program now appears to be reduced to just the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

There is a certain logic, I suppose, to insisting that without Ares and Orion there is no human spaceflight program, and no return to the Moon, and so they should get the highest priority. However, support for the return to the Moon depends on the public being interested and believing in the long-term possibilities and opportunities of human spaceflight. Ares and Orion are of interest to NASA centers and aerospace industry, not the public. The strength of NASA, in particular NASA science, has been a strong external research community that is dedicated to and that cares about NASA’s success. If nothing interesting happens relative to the Moon until 2020, if there is no real activity in preparing for long-duration spaceflight, and if the program becomes inwardly focused into NASA Centers and their contractors, it will have no legs. A major strength of the Apollo program was that something exciting happened every few months. The public interest did not wane until success was achieved.

The single-minded focus on Ares and Orion is also evident in the resistance to any calls for increases in other portions of the NASA budget. The just-released NRC decadal survey for Earth science documented the missions that are required to answer the questions important to society on the future of Earth. Not surprisingly, it said more money is required. More surprisingly, it said a viable program could be constructed just by returning the Earth science budget of NASA to its FY2000 level. However modest this request, it has been labeled a brazen and unacceptable recommendation. One could be cynical here. Research into the causes and future of climate change has to be one of the most important undertakings that the government should support, and today, with the overwhelming public concern about global climate change, one of the easiest programs for which to seek funding. But the NASA budget is fixed. Increases in funding for Earth science could come at the expense of support for Ares and Orion, and so the decadal survey’s request is being attacked.

The American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) resulted in increases in funding for programs in fundamental science (e.g., the National Science Foundation and the Office of Science in the Department of Energy). These programs were among the few that saw increases beyond their FY2006 budget level in the enacted FY2007 budget. It is difficult, in fact impossible, to distinguish between the fundamental science conducted by NASA in its Science Mission Directorate (SMD) and the fundamental science conducted by the NSF or the DoE Office of Science. It is interesting to note that had the funding for SMD been allowed to increase in the same proportion as the NSF, it would have followed the pattern of growth it enjoyed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Instead, the growth for SMD was curtailed in FY2006, to pay for the Shuttle and the Space Station.

Limiting the growth of SMD resulted in reductions to basic research grants provided by the Research & Analysis funding. Not only was science at NASA not allowed to be part of the ACI–even though comparable tasks at other agencies are allowed–but the very parts of SMD that most contribute to American competitiveness were cut. And, as noted above, the fundamental research in life and physical science in microgravity was decimated. NASA does not have enough funding to fulfill its many obligations. I am a big supporter of a human spaceflight program that is to move our civilization out into space; but not at the expense of everything else. And not with a priority that denies everything else its opportunity to play its proper role in the national agenda, and be supported in the budget to do so.

I spend time these days interacting with Congress. NASA has many supporters in Congress. The biggest frustration I hear is that the Administration does not ask for the funds that NASA requires. The appropriations process starts with an allocation to the subcommittees, one of which has NASA in its portfolio. If the allocation is inadequate, there is little the subcommittee can do to help NASA. Yet, the allocation is influenced strongly by the Administration’s request. It would be so much better if the Administration just asked for the funds that NASA needs. It would even be better if they just asked for the funds that were promised to NASA when the Vision for Space Exploration was announced in 2004. The shortfall is now measured in billions of dollars, and that does not include the extra cost of the return to flight of the Shuttle, or any new initiatives such as in Earth science.

NASA officials frequently tell the science community that we should be happy–the funding for the Science Mission Directorate, as a percentage of the NASA budget, is at an all-time high. But that ignores the fact that funding for science was decoupled from being a fixed percentage of the NASA budget in the mid-1990s and allowed to grow in proportion to non-defense discretionary funding, whereas human spaceflight was not. Science was allowed to grow in proportion to what the nation was prepared to spend on science–not just on space–and now it is not. The Earth science community is supposed to be happy because it is only one of four science thrusts in the SMD portfolio and funded roughly at that percentage of the total SMD budget. But this ignores the fact that in 1992,when Earth science in NASA took on its role of providing essential information on global climate change, Earth science funding was close to 40% of the NASA science budget.

These historical arguments are interesting but irrelevant. The budget issue we must confront is not what we had, but what we need. Science in NASA has a job to do. We are to explore the universe and lay down the foundational knowledge for the human expansion into space. We are to determine the future of the Earth, so that sound policy decisions can be made to protect the future of our civilization. We are to contribute to the capability of the United States to compete in the world, whether it is through new knowledge, new technology, or a new workforce. There is no comfort in knowing that we have been proportionally abused in the NASA budget. We do not have the funds required to do our job, and we are not happy.

Lennard A. Fisk

SpaceRef staff editor.