Congress Gives NASA It’s Marching Orders on Space Station Science

By Keith Cowing
December 19, 2005
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Congress Gives NASA It’s Marching Orders on Space Station Science

NASA Administrator Griffin has been dramatically cutting basic life and microgravity science research across the agency. International Space Station (ISS) science has been devastated. These cuts have become quite a cause of concern in Congress. When asked what the criteria are for such cuts, only vague answers come back from NASA.

With the NASA Authorization Act of 2005, Congress has put its foot down.

NASA’s New Directions

The NASA Authorization Act of 2005 Conference Report places some very clear requirements on NASA with regard to science, exploration, and the ISS:

“SEC. 204. ISS RESEARCH. Beginning with fiscal year 2006, the Administrator shall allocate at least 15 percent of the funds budgeted for ISS research to ground-based, free-flyer, and ISS life and microgravity science research that is not directly related to supporting the human exploration program, consistent with section 305.”

With language such as this, it would seem that Mike Griffin is not going to be allowed to summarily eject things from the ISS science program – things that have been a fixture in NASA’s rationalization for the space station for two decades.

NASA is now operating in FY 2006 – and has already shut down – or is shutting down – a substantial amount of “ISS life and microgravity science research that is not directly related to supporting the human exploration program”. With the imminent passage of this bill, and its enactment into law, one would think that NASA now needs to be looking at how to restore some of what it has cut. Indeed, 90 days after this act is signed into law, Congress says that NASA needs to start explaining its plan for ISS research – all ISS research:

“SEC. 506. ISS RESEARCH. The Administrator shall— (1) carry out a program of microgravity research consistent with section 305; (2) consider the need for a life sciences centrifuge and any associated holding facilities; and (3) not later than 90 days after the date of enactment of this Act, transmit to the Committee on Science of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate the research plan for NASA utilization of the ISS and the proposed final configuration of the ISS, which shall include an identification of microgravity research that can be performed in ground-based facilities and then validated in space and an assessment of the impact of having or not having a life science centrifuge aboard the ISS.”

In addition, since this act also designates the U.S. portion of the ISS as a “national laboratory”, NASA is also required to explain how it will operate its assets on the ISS under this new designation:

“SEC. 507. NATIONAL LABORATORY DESIGNATION. (c) PLAN.— Not later than 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act, the Administrator shall transmit to the Committee on Science of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate a plan describing how the national laboratory will be operated.”

Meanwhile, in the Scientific Community

Perhaps the most curious aspect of this debate is the near silence of the research community as these cuts have been made. Perhaps the largest organization concerned with basic and applied space life science, the American Society for Gravitational and Space Biology (ASGSB) has sat on its hands in the back row while these cuts have unfolded. To be certain, they certainly talk about these cuts among themselves, but other than a few half-hearted visits to Capitol Hill and a few phone calls they have simply allowed this budgetary steamroller to overtake them.

Indeed, if you look at the newsletter that accompanies the ASGSB’s recent annual meeting, and listen to what people report about the meeting itself, the organization’s leadership – and the entire society – seems to either be in complete denial about what is going on – or they have abandoned all hope.

The only spark of initiative that has emerged from this community has been the Exploration Life and Medical Sciences (ELMS) Coalition – which includes the ASGSB among its membership. This small group has been keeping the issue alive while the community as a whole has tossed their hands up in frustration.

There has been some concern expressed from the broader scientific community. Specifically, an editorial in Science magazine which observed:

“We can hope that VSE will come to represent the triumph of hope over experience. But will the basic and applied science be done beforehand that is necessary to keep the explorers safe and healthy, or will these professionals seem more like participants in another extreme sport? There are promises that some of these programs will be restarted after the Moon piece of VSE is done, but then the scientists will be someplace else, and NASA will need years to grow some more seed corn. Griffin should consider some fixes: First, restore NASA’s Advisory Council to its full membership; second, ask it to conduct a thorough study of which life sciences efforts are essential to the new vision; and finally, rescue the life scientists and bring them back to the science office.”

Curiously, no one has apparently written Science to comment on this editorial. If the actual scientists involved in ISS research don’t care enough to make their views known, then why should anyone else be expected to champion their cause?

Lack of ISS Science in the VSE

NASA has come under considerable criticism of late for the less than satisfactory manner in which it has explained the science that will accompany exploration – especially as it applies to the ISS. In its recent report “Review of NASA Plans for the International Space Station“, the National Research Council stated:

“The panel saw no evidence of an integrated resource utilization plan for use of the ISS in support of the Exploration Missions. Presentations that covered some elements of criteria and processes for determining priorities for utilization of ISS for different exploration missions demonstrated poor definition of those criteria and processes. In particular, the materials presented to the panel did not seem to take into account the effects that high priorities assigned to one mission would have on factors such as the ability to complete another, perhaps later mission, through depletion of necessary resources or limitation of necessary lead times.”

Mike Griffin seems to at least appreciate that this issue won’t go away. In an internal email sent out several weeks back regarding this NRC report:

“Bottom line, we’re going to have to answer the specific issues in this report. We’re going to have to define the program of activity for ISS that obtains from it the utility that it can provide. We may NOT be able to fund that activity at present; I consider that almost a fact on the ground. But we can put in place the kind of peer-reviewed science that we WOULD do, given the money, and that we WILL do, when we can afford it. This is the “non SMD science” to which Trish refers.”

In that same email, Griffin also sees that the issue of science as a component of – and justification for – exploration is not going to go away either – and will soon need to be addressed:

“The kind of criticism we’re receiving in connection with the ISS, in the report Trish references, needs to be addressed for ISS, and needs to be “headed off at the pass” for the Moon.”

NASA Could Use a Little Help

To be fair, the White House (OMB to be precise) is not providing adequate financial resources so as to allow Griffin to do everything that everyone wants him to do. Griffin will reportedly get a 4% increase for FY 2007 – not the approximately 9% he had asked for. Indeed, in his email, with regard to ISS pressures, he noted:

“The only logical answers come with “spend more money”, and we don’t right now have it to spend.”

This lack of robust support for NASA is curious and is beginning to look like the Bush Administration is walking away from its commitment to the President’s own “Vision for Exploration” which was announced with spectacular flourish barely 2 years ago.

NASA is often loath to take congressional direction on how it runs its programs. The absence of any such guidelines for the past 5 years from Congress (other than annual appropriations bills) has left the agency without an important rudder. It remains to be seen whether NASA will accept the spirit and letter of this direction – or press on in defiance thereof.

At the same time, however, while NASA tries to handle all that is on its plate, we also have to watch as Congress carves hundreds of millions of dollars of earmarks (pork) out of NASA’s budget while OMB simultaneously starves NASA’s money supply.

If Congress and the White House are going to expect NASA to do all these marvelous things, at some point they need to put their money where their mouths are. If they can’t do that, then they need to stop asking NASA to do these things.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.