Science: Lost in Space

Three scientists who criticized NASA for moving funding away from research will no longer be offering their advice.
August 21, 2006

Three advisers to the National Aeronautics and Space Adminstration who were vocal opponents of cuts to NASA’s science programs resigned last week. NASA’s science research initiatives rely heavily on academic researchers, and the resignations, according to some academic scientists, could leave the six-member Science Committee of NASA’s Advisory Council largely without a voice representing the concerns of university researchers.

In the last several years, NASA’s budget has been relatively stagnant. With recovery costs from the Columbia disaster, and President Bush setting manned spaceflight as a priority, funding for the development of, for example, new space-borne observatories and robotic explorers has been repeatedly slashed.

Eugene Levy, provost of Rice University and one of the two advisers who was asked to quit the panel, has been hearing from saddened colleagues who supported his criticism of NASA’s budget priorities. “We were expressing concerns about the direction of the program,” Levy said, “in particular about the balance of science in the program.”

Levy said that he realizes that NASA Administrator Michael Griffin had hard decisions to make, given the agency’s flat budget, but said that “in my view, sustaining an appropriate balance in human and robotic exploration and science is in the national interest. To be starting on a path that explicitly puts science forward with substantially lesser sense of priority or urgency is the source of my greatest concern.”

Dean Acosta, a spokesman for NASA, said that members of the Advisory Council “serve at the pleasure of the administrator,” and that “there are things [Griffin] wants advice on in planning for the future with the resources that NASA has.” Acosta added that “some folks wanted to go outside of that … to things that [Griffin] could change. NASA’s been given a set of priorities and the resources to do it, and that’s it. When it’s not clicking, you make changes.”

The other two advisers who left – Charles Kennel, director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and, until his resignation, head of the advisory committee, and Wesley Huntress, director of the Geophysical Laboratory at the Carnegie Institution – could not be reached for comment. Kennel resigned by choice, while Griffin asked Levy and Huntress to resign.

Huntress had openly questioned the logic behind cutting science programs in favor of manned missions while the president was trumpeting the importance of America’s science competitiveness in the global market.

Levy, like many scientists, including Griffin, has been critical of the International Space Station, which has cost billions more than originally expected. Still, Griffin announced this year that NASA would complete assembly of the space station and “fulfill our international partner commitments.” Critics have said that the main motivation for finishing the station is not good science, but an obligation to international partners.

Robert Park, a University of Maryland physics professor who has testified before Congress on the space program, and who has done some research for NASA, said that the president’s vision for space exploration “makes absolutely no sense to any scientists I’m aware of. Right now the plan is to send the damn shuttle up again so we can finish the space station … it’s not doing anything, the only plan is to finish it.” Park, referring to the discontinued Deep Space Climate Observatory, which would have monitored the Earth’s energy balance from space, said that “perhaps the most important space project in recent years is sitting in a warehouse.” He added that shifting money toward manned programs only ensures that NASA will face more budget struggles in the future, because manned missions are extremely expensive. “We’ve got [robotic] explorers on Mars right now and they’re doing a fantastic job,” Park said. “They don’t break for lunch or complain about the cold nights, and they run on sunshine.”

Levy said that, by promoting research on cutting edge technology, NASA has been vital in “inspiring the population and helping to galvanize young people for careers in science and technology.” With the science cuts, Levy worries that the space program will cease to ignite the same passion it has in the past. University scientists agree.

Kathryn Flanagan, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a member of the Advisory Council’s Astrophysics Subcommittee, said that, to space scientists, going to the Moon and Mars is “mother’s milk,” but that the NASA budget is a zero-sum affair. Flanagan has been working on instrumentation for a  cutting edge, space borne X-ray observatory called “Constellation-X.” Recently, she said, in order to reduce the cost of the project, NASA introduced “Con-X Light,” which is the observatory sans the university-supplied instruments. “We expect to have our budgets zeroed next year,” Flanagan said.

Flanagan said that “we’ve had to redirect students to other research topics.” She said that students have had to change their thesis topics. “If there’s not a future in a particular field, you don’t go down that field.” Flanagan said that one of her colleagues at the California Institute of Technology “may have to route students away from astrophysics entirely.” Flanagan added that “space science is the jewel of NASA’s crown. It has won so much public understanding and support … it’s crazy to jeopardize it.”

Michael Ledford, a Washington consultant for research universities, said that there may be some light at the end of the funding tunnel for faculty and graduate students discouraged by the current situation. Ledford noted that Senators Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) have led a push to give NASA $2 billion extra over the next two years, in part to reimburse science programs that were cut when shuttle repairs started sucking up money.

Park, though, is having trouble finding any silver lining. “I see absolutely nothing on the horizon that gives me any optimism whatsoever,” he said. “We need a complete change of goals.”


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