We Regret to Inform You...

August 29, 2006

In the 16 years since he first did research for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Tony Ingraffea, Dwight C. Baum professor of engineering at Cornell University, had seen projects come and go. But he’d never seen an e-mail like the one he got on July 14.

“NASA’s Aeronautics Program has been restructured,” it read, “any funds provided on your grant/agreement for performance beyond September 30, 2006 are to be deobligated immediately.”

The e-mail came around one year into what was supposed to be a three-year project studying damage inflicted on aircraft by missiles -- and whether damaged aircraft might be kept aloft.

“NASA has been extraordinarily good to me as a researcher,” Ingraffea said. “I was shocked, surprised, and disappointed.”

Like Ingraffea, other researchers who have worked for NASA for years, have, this year, for the first time in their careers, gotten word from NASA that the plug on their project has been pulled, effective immediately, and not because of the quality of their work.

With an essentially flat budget, recovery costs of the Columbia shuttle disaster and damage from Hurricane Katrina, and President Bush setting manned spaceflight as a top priority, NASA has shifted money away from its science programs, where the agency most often engages the academy. “Universities don’t really have a role with the shuttle or the [International Space Station],” said Kei Koizumi, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The graduate student Ingraffea recruited for the project had been on board for a year when it was cancelled. “The first thing that went through my head when I saw the e-mail,” Ingraffea said, “was the unwritten mantra, ‘NASA never abandons a graduate student.’” Ingraffea now has to scramble to find support for his student, and said that it is “highly likely” that the scenario will add time to the student’s Ph.D. track.

Rick Howard, acting director of the Astrophysics Division in NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said that NASA has been discussing prospective cuts in press releases and public dialogues since February, when the federal budget was finalized, so researchers "shouldn't have been suprised ... that there were potentially impacts they were facing."

For some other students, postdocs and young researchers who have been on the NASA tablecloth as it was pulled, it’s not even clear what discipline they’ll land in.

Kathryn Flanagan, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was working on instruments for the space borne observatory called Constellation X. Recently, she said, to reduce the cost of the project, NASA introduced “Con-X Light,” which is the observatory sans the university-supplied instruments. Flanagan said that students from the research team have had to find new thesis topics.

Mike Pivovaroff, a 34-year-old physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said that he would “certainly not advise anyone coming out of grad school to take a job in someone’s lab on a NASA project.” Pivovaroff was part of a team of scientists working on a cutting edge X-ray telescope called “NuSTAR,” which would have blazed new trails in the detection of black holes and measurement of radioactive material from recently exploded stars.

The project team included members from industry, the California Institute of Technology, Columbia University, the University of California at Berkeley, and Stanford University.

The project team had already spent millions in private money winning a competitive grant for the project and then going through technical development for a year. The project was about to go to the next phase, when Fiona Harrison, professor of physics and astronomy at Caltech, and principle investigator for NuSTAR, got word in February that NuSTAR had been chosen for the cutting room floor.

Harrison, who has worked on dozens of NASA projects over about 15 years, said that, as far as she knew, NASA “never before cancelled a competitive, peer-reviewed mission.” In the past, she said, when cash grew scarce at NASA, the agency would provide bridge funding, so that a team could keep the project partners together – a standing science army – until more money was available. But that hasn’t happened this time. “We had built up a fairly large team” that included students and post-docs, Harrison said, “and I hadn’t renewed other grants because I thought my lab would be completely preoccupied with this mission.”

NASA invited the team to reapply for grants in the future, Harrison said, but gave no time table or guarantee that there would be funds. Harrison said that, if NASA assured her within about six months that there would be funds, it might still be possible to keep the project team together, but much longer than that, and NuSTAR will chart an irreversible course to its early demise.

Asked if Harrison thought some of the younger scientists from the team might end up out of experimental astrophysics altogether, she responded simply, “oh yeah. I’m advising the post-docs to look at industry and elsewhere.”

Harrison added that, because she essentially had to waste her institution’s money, “it’s very difficult for me to ever go back to Caltech and say I want to do this again.” She said that “frankly, [NASA doesn’t] care or they don’t understand” the problems that pulling funding on short notice creates for universities. Harrison said that she realizes that NASA is in a difficult budget situation, but said that the way the changes have been handled has been “abysmal.”

Howard said that "we're fully aware that" abrupt program terminations are problematic "not only at universities, but also within NASA centers." Howard added, though, that it's somewhat easier to reassign employees at NASA centers and keep them around until funding once again becomes available. Center researchers may lose some of their expertise, but they would remain in astrophysics.

Wayne Baumgartner, a 32-year-old postdoc who was on the NuSTAR team, said that he’s contemplating switching fields. Michael Ledford, a Washington consultant for research universities, said that a push to give NASA $2 billion extra over the next two years led by Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), could help turn things around. But once some young scientists leave astrophysics, they may not come back. “The reality is, once you jump ship, it’s hard to come back,” Baumgartner said.

Pivovaroff, who spoke from Germany where he is testing X-ray optics because the appropriate NASA facility in the United States was "mothballed," he said, is still doing experimental physics with money from the Department of Homeland Security and the National Institutes of Health. “But I went to grad school to be an astrophysicist,” said Pivovaroff, who got his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2000. “This climate has made my relationship with my first love a little bit chilly.”

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