Balance. The SMD program will become seriously unbalanced because the reductions in funding have fallen disproportionately on the small missions and the R&A programs. The committee estimates that the proposed 15 percent reductions in R&A budgets are equivalent to less than 2 to 3 percent of the funding for flight missions. 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 (possibly lower than 30 percent) 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 each mission’s data stream into new understanding that creates intellectual, cultural, and technological benefits. Because space exploration is a long-term endeavor that spans decades and generations, NASA will need a sustained long-term investment in human capital, facilities, technology development, and progressive scientific discoveries.
The committee identified four critical areas that are especially significant contributors to its second finding.
Research and analysis (R&A) budgets have been reduced. R&A projects conducted at universities, NASA centers, and within industry support a trained, knowledgeable workforce; they form the basis for the science and technology required for future missions; and they support analysis and interpretation of data from existing missions. Although these programs involve a relatively small fraction of total resources, cuts to the R&A grants program cause disproportionately large damage to the viability of the space sciences disciplines as well as to future programs. By reducing these programs, NASA reduces the return on its investment in past missions and cripples its ability to execute future missions in an economical and scientifically productive manner.
Astrobiology research has been severely reduced. Astrobiology—the study of the origin, evolution, and ubiquity of life in the cosmos, including the conditions necessary for life on other planets—is a discipline that NASA created and fostered for decades with its exobiology program and to which it gave major new emphasis a decade ago through the use of dedicated R&A funds.1 NASA has stimulated the establishment of new courses and degree or certificate programs at several institutions, created new faculty lines, stimulated new areas of cross-disciplinary research and teaching, and inspired more diverse and capable students to become engaged in the new field. The search for life elsewhere is central to NASA’s overall mission, but the overall program is now proposed to be cut in half, causing valuable expertise and research to be lost. NASA’s ability to reconstitute its astrobiology capability in the future will be impeded by the message that the field is a bad career choice.
Explorers and other small missions have been delayed or canceled. Explorer, ESSP, and Mars Scout missions are among the smallest missions in NASA’s science portfolio, and because of their centrality to science research, all of the NRC decadal survey reports have considered them vital and inviolable. These small missions fill critical science gaps in areas that are not addressed by strategic missions, serve as precursors to larger missions, support the rapid implementation of attacks on very
In its 2003 review of the astrobiology program (National Research Council, Life in the Universe: An Assessment of U.S. and International Programs in Astrobiology, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2004) the SSB Committee on the Origins and Evolution of Life concluded that “Astrobiology is a good recent example of the United States leading the rest of the world into a new discipline area and new forms of research.”