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Analysts Say Space Programs Are Starved For Funds, Missions Compromised

By | June 12, 2006

      NASA science and research space programs have been savaged, facing “unprecedented” funding cuts that mean missions are delayed, compromised or canceled, prominent analysts told members of Congress.

      “The future of NASA is being threatened as never before,” said Peter Voorhees, with the Northwestern University department of materials science and engineering, speaking before a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee science and space subcommittee.

      “Only by supporting an ongoing physical sciences research program will NASA be able to avoid failures that could have been anticipated by physical sciences research,” Voorhees predicted.

      The Bush administration and Congress have cut a wide array of federal government programs, as the federal budget has swung from record surpluses reaching $238 billion yearly to record deficits exceeding $300 billion in recent years.

      Funding for the NASA Space and Missile Directorate (SMD) will be cut by $3.1 billion over five years, “so that funding for SMD will suffer a declining inflation-adjusted budget,” said Roy Torbert, director of the space science center at the University of New Hampshire.

      The $5.33 billion that President Bush requested for SMD in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2007, “is less in real [inflation-adjusted] dollars than was appropriated in 2004,” Torbert noted.

      Fiscal devastation is widespread throughout science and research programs, he reported.

      For example, “major missions, such as the Solar Terrestrial Probe line with the heliophysics division, have been stretched out significantly, compromising their ability to function together for the achievement of strategic goals.”

      In like manner, smaller programs have been hit by cuts, he said. “Smaller missions, which are a critical opportunity for students and young faculty at universities, have been greatly reduced.”

      The extent of the cuts is great in some programs. To cite one, “The Explorer program will be reduced by almost 50 percent and already shows no mission opportunities between 2003 and 2008,” Torbert said.

      Or, in another initiative, the “Low Cost Access to Space program has declining launch opportunities and is losing launch site capability,” he said. As well, research and analysis budgets “have been reduced by 15 percent, with larger short-term impacts due to ongoing commitments.”

      All of this would be bad enough, but other factors make the picture worse.

      “There are structural problems,” Torbert said, “which, by driving up the costs of major science missions, make these impacts even more severe.” He pointed to a shortage of trained technical workforce as driving up mission costs. But a key source of future workers in this area is the NASA science programs.

      Outside of SMD, things are grim as well.

      For example, funding for non-SMD biological and physical research “has decreased by almost 75 percent,” said James Pawelczyk, associate professor of physiology, kinesiology and medicine at Pennsylvania State University.

      This means difficulties for those working in these programs.

      “The elimination of 20 percent of the funding for external research grants in the life sciences, and the premature termination of 84 percent of these grants, will affect approximately 500 life science graduate students in 25 states,” Pawelczyk said.

      To bring all of these numbers and descriptions down to hard realities, Pawelczyk described just why science and research are important to Bush’s call for the United States to return to the moon, and then launch manned missions to Mars and beyond.

      By studying astronauts and cosmonauts spending up to half a year at a time in low Earth orbit, science programs have provided a sobering warning as to what this would mean during a zero-gravity 30-month manned mission to Mars:

      • One hundred percent of the crew members would suffer the loss of more than 15 percent of their bone mineral in the hip and femur (located in the upper leg, the femur is the longest and strongest bone in the body).
      • About 80 percent of the crew would lose more than 25 percent of their bone mineral.
      • More than 40 percent of the crew would lose greater than 50 percent of their bone mineral.
      • About 20 percent would lose more than 25 percent of their exercise capacity.
      • Finally, roughly 40 percent of them would lose 30 percent or more of their leg muscle strength.

      Voorhees gave another example of the critical realities of space research programs.

      He noted that while humans have had thousands of years of experience in detecting and fighting fires on Earth, there is relatively little known about fires in microgravity or partial Earth gravity. Thus “our understanding of flame propagation issues that impact spacecraft and planet habitat safety is very limited,” Voorhees said.

      “Although fires on a spacecraft are an unlikely event, if one should occur it could be catastrophic not only for the mission but for the entire human exploration of space effort,” Voorhees warned. “I can think of few stronger rationales for a vigorous combustion research program.”

      Science and research are critical if the United States is to have successful space missions, said retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden, a former pilot astronaut. He flew two missions as a shuttle pilot, and two as mission commander. He also is a former assistant deputy administrator of NASA.

      “You in Congress and the president must see your way to expanding the funding for .. NASA … ” Bolden told the lawmakers.

      Getting astronauts into space and back home, safely, is a daunting challenge, he said. “We needn’t make it even more difficult by holding the NASA budget down to a level where we are forced to make the choice between scientific and technological research, and human exploration, thus decreasing our chances of successfully pursuing either” goal, he said.

      Pawelczyk offered the lawmakers suggestions on how “to restore scientific credibility at NASA” with a coordinated strategy.

      He would add $150 million to restore biological funding to the level of the current fiscal 2006 budget and add $50 million more per year, set a timeframe for delivering and completing a risk mitigation plan for humans exploring the moon and Mars, and develop a comprehensive plan for performing research aboard the International Space Station without using the space shuttle, and to develop sufficient congressional oversight to hold NASA to those goals.

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