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NASA Science Missions Short Of Funds

By | March 17, 2008

      In Hard Budget Times, NASA Manages To Keep Many Programs Going, But Can’t Do It All

      Widespread Funds Shortages Come As Congress Prepares To Reauthorize NASA For Coming Years

      Key lawmakers lauded NASA for struggling to keep science missions moving ahead, but clearly the agency can’t do every planned science mission with the $4.4 billion of funds that President Bush proposed in the budget for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2009.

      The bottom line, therefore, is that the total top line of the NASA agency-wide budget must be increased, the lawmakers said.

      Otherwise, a zero-sum game will evolve, in which one mission will be advance only by pilfering money from another program, robbing Peter to pay Paul, according to Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee space and aeronautics subcommittee.

      While he endorsed NASA proposals for new science programs, "it is not at all clear that it is going to be possible to sustain those new initiatives in an effective manner under the administration’s assumed funding plan," Udall said.

      The concerns were bipartisan.

      Rep. Tom Feeney of Florida, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, also praised Alan Stern, associate NASA administrator for the science mission directorate, for doing the most that he can with the limited money he is provided.

      But Feeney also observed that you get what you pay for, and the United States can’t remain the world’s preeminent spacefaring nation if the money isn’t there to pay for world class programs.

      He blamed many, including Congress, for failing to step up and provide adequate funding, saying too many in controlling positions shun moves needed in "providing what is necessary to achieve this excellence."

      The result is that funding rises but slowly, meaning that inflation steadily chews away at the dollars made available, and NASA watches its purchasing power slowly ebb away.

      "The result of our actions is that NASA’s resources are shrinking in real terms, while the agency is charged with maintaining America’s preeminence as a spacefaring nation," Feeyey said.

      He quoted the accident investigation board that probed causes of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, in which the ship and crew of seven were lost: "Continued U.S. leadership in space is an important national objective. That leadership depends on a willingness to pay the costs of achieving it."

      Similarly, the Planetary Society informed the subcommittee that "devastating cuts to science [programs] made two years ago are still felt in the new budget" for fiscal 2009, including a $200 million, or 35 percent, cut to Mars programs.

      And in the ambitious vision for solar system space exploration that President Bush enunciated four years ago, calling for trips to the moon, Mars and beyond, budget constraints mean that all that is left of his vision is returning the United States to the moon. The Bush budget plans for future years involve "scaling back the vision for space exploration by reducing the Constellation program to just developing a new rocket and building a lunar base," according to the society.

      Or, put another way, "so far the money that was promised [for space science programs] has not been provided, according to Lennard A. Fisk, a University of Michigan professor of space science, former NASA science programs chief, and chair of the National Research Council space studies board, speaking for himself.

      A similar view that the budget plan doesn’t seem to contain enough money to execute missions came from Steven W. Squyres, a Cornell University astronomy professor, who pointed out major funding shortfalls in programs such as the Mars Sample Return initiative.

      So what does the funding shortage mean in science programs?

      Udall provided some examples.

      The National Academies of Science "estimated that some $7 billion would be required over the next 12 years to carry out the 15 NASA Earth science missions recommended in the Decadal Survey," Udall observed. "However, the [Bush administration] budget plan for the next five years would allocate less than $1 billion to that effort," meaning more than $6 billion of the $7 billion would have to be provided by presidents who succeed Bush at the White House.

      Another example: The Bush budget "would cut the annual funding for the Mars program in half over the next five years, while still planning for the launch of an ambitious Mars Sample Return mission by 2018," Udall noted. But even though that mission likely would run up a tab of $5 billion or more, "NASA is planning to spend only $68 million on technology risk reduction activities for the mission over the next five years, an amount that seems quite low for a mission of such complexity and difficulty."

      Congress won’t feel comfortable in moving forward with such new programs until lawmakers can understand the plans and assumptions at work here, and their effect on existing Mars exploration programs, Udall cautioned.

      Then there is a plan to send a spaceship far out to examine dark energy matter. Not only is NASA estimating a cost for this initiative "that is lower than the cost estimate contained in a recent report," but as well, "essentially all of NASA’s five-year funding wedge for the future astrophysics missions is already assumed to be needed to compensate for low levels of reserves in the James Webb Space Telescope project," or JWST. That will be the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.

      Examining funding plans for NASA science programs more broadly, they "are to be built on a budget that increases by only 1 percent through [fiscal 2011], and that assumes only inflationary increases at best in the years beyond that," Udall noted with concern.

      "There will be little new money," he observed. "Instead, there will be a continuing need to transfer … funds across the science accounts to support each new initiative, an approach that some might call robbing Peter to pay Paul."

      Similarly, a witness before the subcommittee said NASA science programs will see plunging buying power in coming years.

      The effective budget will plummet by 31 percent in buying power over the next five years, according to Jack Burns, professor and vice president emeritus of the University of Colorado.

      This is a formula for budgetary chaos, the chairman, Udall, warned, an approach that "will not prove sustainable or credible," he concluded, questioning the soothing assurances that ferreting out waste, fraud and abuse, or implementing efficiencies and cost controls, can somehow make the budget books balance.

      Whether that could be true would have to be proven, he said.

      Rather, he fears that what is past may be prologue, noting that "eight NASA science projects have already exceeded statutory cost and schedule growth thresholds."

      While lawmakers expressed concern at these and other problems in NASA, there also have been accomplishments in its science programs, Stern stated, describing a few of them:

      • There have been 85 separate flight missions.


      • They have provided scientists with unprecedented findings, such as seeing for the first time the unseen side of the planet Mercury.



      • Spacecraft have taken three-dimensional images of the sun.



      • NASA has explored dark matter and dark energy.



      • Myriad programs including rover vehicles have provided eye-opening insights into Mars.



      • Suborbital programs have increased.



      • The lunar program is progressing.


      Stern also addressed some programs that haven’t gone as well, including the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS).

      This program had three agencies involved: aside from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Defense also were involved. Many different sensors and capabilities were added to the planned eye in space, and costs soared while the program fell behind schedule.

      Some of those add-ons were deleted from NPOESS to save money, but that meant that critical capabilities would be left out, so some are being added back, Stern noted, including an instrument to assess clouds and Earth radiant energy, a total solar irradiance sensor, and an ozone mapping and profiling asset.

      The Government Accountability Office and the Department of Commerce office of inspector general, two watchdog agencies, have critiqued NPOESS, and NASA and NOAA have taken some lessons learned from the mishap, such as being careful about adding too many assets to a single satellite, and the need to effectively track and manage space programs.

      The problem was summed up well by another subcommittee witness.

      Proposed Bush budget funding levels are inadequate to support all planned programs, according to Berrien Moore III, executive director of Climate Center, Inc., in Princeton, N.J., and chair of the Committee on Earth Studies with the space studies board in the National Research Council, part of the National Academies.

      While the Bush fiscal 2009 budget proposal begins to address problems created by some of the significant cuts to those programs in the past several budget cycles, Moore said some of the funding plus-ups have come at the expense of other NASA science programs.

      It is, therefore, time to end the zero-sum game of attempting to cover money shortages in one program by purse-snatching funds from another, Moore said.

      "A simple redistribution of resources will not be a solution," he told the lawmakers. Rather, the total amount of money allotted to NASA must be expanded.

      Moore advised Congress to increase "the NASA topline budget," providing "an additional plus-up above the president’s request."

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