Followup to Congressional NASA hearings and my thoughts

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March 2 2006 11:29 AM

Followup to Congressional NASA hearings and my thoughts

Update: CNN has posted an article about this, with the headline -- get this -- Astronauts blast science budget cuts (emphasis mine). At least they didn't say "Astrologers". Sigh.

The Congressional hearing about NASA cuts to space science ended a few minutes ago. It can be hard to say exactly how things have gone in such an event; there is so much spin and politicking. But I am guardedly optimistic, in that the first step to solving a problem is recognizing it, and the problem is definitely recognized!

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Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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It's clear that Congress and scientists are extremely concerned about what the NASA science cuts will do to the future of scientific research at NASA. Both were very frank about how NASA science is in real danger of becoming extinct.

Note: in this blog entry, the quotations are as close as I could get them since I was typing as quickly as I could while listening. So they may not be word-for-word, but they should be close.

The opening comments were very interesting. Congressman Gordon said "I'm afraid science has become an afterthought in NASA's exploration initiative," and Congressman Udall said "We're not off to a good start when billions are cut from science research; I believe these cuts are ill-advised. NASA's science efforts are intellectual seed corn, and the NASA budget puts that seed corn at risk, and that's a mistake."

They also praised the four testifying members of the National Academy of Sciences for what they said about their concern as well. The NAS scientists were quite up front about how devastating the NASA cuts are. They stressed how smaller programs are being destroyed in favor of much larger missions, and how this is hurting the younger researchers who will go on to do bigger and better science. This latter was a theme I have talked about in this blog before, and was discussed many times in the hearing. I'm glad that was aired out, as it's a key point here... and I'll get back to it in a moment.

Mary Cleave, NASA's Associate Administrator for science, did say some encouraging things. When the Chair asked her if she would heed the advice of the council about the cuts to smaller programs, she said they will "revisit" these issues. However, I'll note that I have heard such talk before. Cleave may very well think about it, but honestly it's hard to say if that will make a difference; she and other NASA administrators have already known for some time about how scientists feel about these cuts. Boehlert responded to her: "We are deeply concerned by the presentation as we see it now." I think the majority of the scientific community would agree.

More troubling to me is how Cleave gave her introductory speech; everyone is given five minutes to introduce their thoughts. The Congressmen specifically asked her to address how the cuts will affect NASA science. Instead, however, she spent the majority of her five minutes talking about the science NASA has successfully started or will be doing over the next two years *. The Chair interrupted her and asked her to address the cuts to Research and Analysis. She agreed, and then said very nonspecific things for a few more seconds until her time ran out. The fact that she did not address the actual budget cuts in her prepared speech is interesting, since this was in fact what this entire House session was about.

Fran Bagenal, an NAS scientist, specifically addressed Cleave's list of NASA successful missions, saying that this sounds good for the next two years, but after that, when the current budget hits hardest, there will be very few missions launched (I think she said just one). In other words, Cleave's list of NASA successes has little pertinence to the current crisis, implying strongly that this was just spin on Cleave's part.

One of my biggest concerns going into this was that people are ignoring the elephant in the living room, so to speak: NASA is cutting money from small programs, but hemorrhaging money into the Shuttle and Space Station (I'll note that Congressman Gordon used this exact phrase about an elephant in one of his statements). They were also saying that going back to the Moon is a good idea (NAS scientist Joe Taylor took exception to that, though), but that it is hugely underfunded, and that is killing NASA, specifically science at NASA.

This was finally discussed late in the meeting. Wes Huntress of the NAS did say about the new Vision for Exploration, "The President offered a budget to support it, but NASA administration cut it. " I think that's pretty succinct. Huntress, as expected, hammered NASA.

Congressman Boehlert asked the NAS panel members if they would be willing to cut money from their own flagship missions to support smaller ones. They all said yes, but I think this was the wrong question. The right question is "what can be done to fund these missions, and, barring a new influx of money, what other things can be cut to maintain a good balance of science and exploration?" That would put the Shuttle and Station on the table, as they should be. I'll note that Congressman Calvert said "We need to raise the top line," meaning in reality NASA simply needs more money to fund what it needs to do. Others reiterated this feeling, so that was very gratifying to hear.

The other concern of mine is how these "temporary" delays will actually do far more damage than advertised because a two year delay is an eternity in the life of a researcher, especially a young postdoc or graduate student. This was addressed as well, thankfully. Berrien Moore from the NAS stated "Once again, we are mortgaging our future... the impact of program delays on morale and maintaining core competency is large... I believe that the scientific community as a whole is strongly supportive of the new leadership [meaning NASA Administrator Griffin]. However NASA is now being asked to do more with the resources it's been given... we aren't going to fix this by rearranging the deck chairs; something more fundamental has got to happen."

Congressman Wu made a passionate speech about a lack of leadership and funding on the part of the Bush Administration. The new vision for exploration is like an unfunded mandate: go do this, but you won't get any new money to do it. This was a chilling message to NASA science when it was announced then, and we're seeing it come true now. Wu was clear that he would vote to give more funds to NASA tomorrow if he could, which was very nice to hear indeed.

So my concerns coming into this -- will Congress say NASA needs more funding, what small missions are being cut to fund big ones, and how will this affect the next generation of young scientists -- were all addressed, and in a manner I thought was relevant and heartening. These are now being replaced with my next concern: what will NASA do with this information from scientists and Congress? Exploration and science go hand in hand. To devastate one to feed the other is a horrendous error. What future expedition will be sacrificed because we didn't want to fund the science in the first place?

*Ironically, the very first thing Cleave listed was NASA satellite analysis of the Greenland ice sheet: this was the same study that George Deutsch was trying to keep climatologist James Hansen from talking about because it directly contradicts the Bush Administration's stance on global warming.

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