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An Assessment of Balance in NASA’s Science Programs
The committee reviewed NASA’s plans for research programs over the next 5 years in each of six areas—astrophysics, heliophysics, planetary science, astrobiology, Earth science, and microgravity life and physical sciences—and reached the following conclusions in response to the study charge.
Finding 1. NASA is being asked to accomplish too much with too little. The agency does not have the necessary resources to carry out the tasks of completing the International Space Station, returning humans to the Moon, maintaining vigorous space and Earth science and microgravity life and physical sciences programs, and sustaining capabilities in aeronautical research.
Recommendation 1. Both the executive and the legislative branches of the federal government need to seriously examine the mismatch between the tasks assigned to NASA and the resources that the agency has been provided to accomplish them and should identify actions that will make the agency’s portfolio of responsibilities sustainable.
Finding 2. The program proposed for space and Earth science is not robust; it is not properly balanced to support a healthy mix of small, medium, and large missions and an underlying foundation of scientific research and advanced technology projects; and it is neither sustainable nor capable of making adequate progress toward the goals that were recommended in the National Research Council’s decadal surveys.
The committee used four criteria to assess NASA’s science programs in response to the committee’s charge (see Chapter 1), and the committee’s conclusions with respect to those criteria are as follows:
Capacity to make steady progress. The proposed SMD mission portfolio will fall far short of what was recommended by the NRC’s decadal surveys. The space and Earth science programs will be forced to terminate or delay numerous flight missions, curtail advanced technology preparations for other future missions, and significantly reduce support for the research projects of thousands of scientists across the country. The net result of these actions will be that NASA will not be able to make reasonable progress—in any of the major space research disciplines—toward the scientific goals that were set out for the decade, and our nation’s leadership in Earth and space research and exploration will erode relative to efforts of other nations.
Stability. The science program has become fundamentally unstable. As Figures 1.1 and 1.2 illustrate (see Chapter 1), there have been dramatic changes in the projected resource trajectories for all science programs over the past 3 years. Consequently, it has not been possible to follow an orderly plan for sequencing missions and projects, developing advanced technology, sizing and nurturing a research and technical community, or meeting commitments to other U.S. or international partners.
Balance. The SMD program will become seriously unbalanced because the reductions in funding have fallen disproportionately on the small missions and the research and analysis (R&A) programs. The small missions such as the Explorers and the Earth System Science Pathfinders had already been reduced with the initiation of the Vision in FY 2005, to the point that their projected flight rate is now a fraction of what it had been throughout the history of the space program. The reductions in FY 2007 and the out-years compound the problem and also add a new target for reduction, the R&A program, which is the lifeblood of the space and Earth science community. Plans are to reduce R&A funding by 15 percent retroactively starting with the FY 2006 budget, with larger cuts in such programs as Astrobiology.
Robustness. The proposed program is not robust because it undermines the training and development of the next generation of scientists and engineers—the generation that will be critical to the accomplishment of the agency’s federal responsibilities, including the Vision. Space missions, regardless of whether they are for robotic or human exploration, generate an appropriate return on investment only if there is a high-quality, vibrant, experienced, and committed community of scientists and engineers to turn