1
Introduction

The history of NASA’s science programs is one of more than four decades of extraordinary achievements that have captured the imaginations of people throughout the world. Those achievements continue to astonish us and expand our appreciation for the universe as today’s scientific spacecraft produce new evidence of what may once have been habitable environments on Mars, discoveries of water geysers spouting from the surface of a moon of Saturn, new insights into the formation of black holes, evidence of the importance of mysterious dark matter and dark energy, and insight into the structure of the universe near the time of its very beginning. Satellite-borne instruments that look back at Earth provide increasingly important ways to monitor natural hazards, climate variability, and both global and regional environmental changes, and through such measurements they help us understand the habitability of our own planet. The technology that must be created to accomplish such ambitious scientific endeavors finds its way into other terrestrial applications and stimulates other technological accomplishments. Consequently, NASA’s science programs have succeeded on many levels, thereby winning valuable prestige and support for the agency from both the public and the government. NASA science has served the nation broadly in ways that expand our intellect, enhance our culture, improve our economic security, and generally enrich the nation and the world.

On January 14, 2004, President George W. Bush announced a new national Vision for Space Exploration (“the Vision”) with the fundamental goal “to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program” that would involve human and robotic exploration of space, including sending humans back to the Moon and later to Mars.1 In its June 2004 report, the President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy2 outlined a broad notional science agenda for implementing the Vision that was built around three themes:

  • Origins—The beginnings of the universe, our solar system, other planetary systems, and life;

  • Evolution—How the components of the universe have changed with time, including the physical, chemical, and biological processes that have affected it, and the sequences of major events; and

  • Fate—What the lessons of galactic, stellar, and planetary history tell about the future and our place in the universe.

The breadth of NASA’s science program is captured further in the administration’s U.S. Ocean policy,3 the 2001 U.S. Climate Change Research initiative,4 and the 2003 Global Earth Observation initiative.5 NASA’s science program is thus intended to meet research priorities across an array of

1  

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), The Vision for Space Exploration, NP-2004-01-334-HQ, NASA, Washington, D.C., 2004.

2  

President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy, A Journey to Inspire, Innovate and Discover (also known as the Aldridge Commission report), June 2004, available at <govinfo.library.unt.edu/moontomars/docs/M2MReportScreenFinal.pdf>.

3  

See the information on the U.S. Ocean Action Plan at the Web site of the Committee on Ocean policy, <ocean.ceq.gov/>.

4  

See <www.climatevision.gov/statements.html>.

5  

See <www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/02/20020214-5.html> and <www.earthobservationsummit.gov/press_release_whfs.html>.



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An Assessment of Balance in NASA’s Science Programs 1 Introduction The history of NASA’s science programs is one of more than four decades of extraordinary achievements that have captured the imaginations of people throughout the world. Those achievements continue to astonish us and expand our appreciation for the universe as today’s scientific spacecraft produce new evidence of what may once have been habitable environments on Mars, discoveries of water geysers spouting from the surface of a moon of Saturn, new insights into the formation of black holes, evidence of the importance of mysterious dark matter and dark energy, and insight into the structure of the universe near the time of its very beginning. Satellite-borne instruments that look back at Earth provide increasingly important ways to monitor natural hazards, climate variability, and both global and regional environmental changes, and through such measurements they help us understand the habitability of our own planet. The technology that must be created to accomplish such ambitious scientific endeavors finds its way into other terrestrial applications and stimulates other technological accomplishments. Consequently, NASA’s science programs have succeeded on many levels, thereby winning valuable prestige and support for the agency from both the public and the government. NASA science has served the nation broadly in ways that expand our intellect, enhance our culture, improve our economic security, and generally enrich the nation and the world. On January 14, 2004, President George W. Bush announced a new national Vision for Space Exploration (“the Vision”) with the fundamental goal “to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program” that would involve human and robotic exploration of space, including sending humans back to the Moon and later to Mars.1 In its June 2004 report, the President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy2 outlined a broad notional science agenda for implementing the Vision that was built around three themes: Origins—The beginnings of the universe, our solar system, other planetary systems, and life; Evolution—How the components of the universe have changed with time, including the physical, chemical, and biological processes that have affected it, and the sequences of major events; and Fate—What the lessons of galactic, stellar, and planetary history tell about the future and our place in the universe. The breadth of NASA’s science program is captured further in the administration’s U.S. Ocean policy,3 the 2001 U.S. Climate Change Research initiative,4 and the 2003 Global Earth Observation initiative.5 NASA’s science program is thus intended to meet research priorities across an array of 1   National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), The Vision for Space Exploration, NP-2004-01-334-HQ, NASA, Washington, D.C., 2004. 2   President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy, A Journey to Inspire, Innovate and Discover (also known as the Aldridge Commission report), June 2004, available at <govinfo.library.unt.edu/moontomars/docs/M2MReportScreenFinal.pdf>. 3   See the information on the U.S. Ocean Action Plan at the Web site of the Committee on Ocean policy, <ocean.ceq.gov/>. 4   See <www.climatevision.gov/statements.html>. 5   See <www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/02/20020214-5.html> and <www.earthobservationsummit.gov/press_release_whfs.html>.

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An Assessment of Balance in NASA’s Science Programs initiatives of national significance. For this report, the committee’s statement of task did not encompass issues of balance and priorities among multiagency initiatives. Instead this report focuses exclusively on an analysis of the match between goals and proposed activity within NASA’s own programs, and balance across disciplines within these programs, in support of the Vision as well as to meet broader national scientific objectives. Congress, in the report accompanying the FY 2005 appropriations bill for NASA, expressed support for a broad view of science as part of its vision for NASA. It called for “a strategy by which all of NASA’s science disciplines, including Earth science, space science, and life and microgravity science, as well as the science conducted aboard the International Space Station, can make adequate progress towards their established goals, as well as providing balanced scientific research in addition to support of the new initiative.”6 Finally, in the NASA Authorization Act of 2005,7 Congress gave NASA program responsibilities as follows: The Administrator shall ensure that NASA carries out a balanced set of programs that shall include, at a minimum, programs in— human space flight, in accordance with subsection (b); aeronautics research and development; and scientific research, which shall include, at a minimum— robotic missions to study the Moon and other planets and their moons, and to deepen understanding of astronomy, astrophysics, and other areas of science that can be productively studied from space; earth science research and research on the Sun-Earth connection through the development and operation of research satellites and other means; support of university research in space science, earth science, and microgravity science; and research on microgravity, including research that is not directly related to human exploration. Thus, a broad program of scientific studies continues to be an integral element of NASA’s charter, but a challenge remains to accomplish a balanced scientific program within a broader, balanced portfolio of commitments that also must include human spaceflight and aeronautical research. In presenting NASA’s proposed program and budget for FY 2007 to the House Science Committee on February 16, 2006, Administrator Griffin said, “The plain fact is that NASA simply cannot afford to do everything that our many constituencies would like the agency to do. We must set priorities, and we must adjust our spending to match those priorities. NASA needed to take budgeted funds from the Science and Exploration budget projections for FY 2007-11 in order to ensure that enough funds were available to the Space Shuttle and the ISS. Thus, NASA can not afford the costs of starting some new space science missions.” With respect to research in the microgravity sciences Griffin noted, “While NASA needed to significantly curtail projected funding for biological and physical sciences research on the [ISS] as well as various research and technology projects in order to fund development for the CEV [Crew Exploration Vehicle], the U.S. segment of the [ISS] was designated a National Laboratory in the NASA Authorization Act…. However, the research utilization of the ISS is limited primarily due to limited cargo and crew transportation.” Griffin stated clearly that the agency’s decisions about support for science did not reflect an intention to move away from science as a core NASA mission, but he explained that the issue was about balancing priorities. He said, “My decision to curtail the rate of growth for NASA’s Science missions is not intended in any way to demonstrate a lack of respect for the work done by the NASA science team. 6   Conference Report on H.R. 4818, Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2005, H. Rept. 108-792, p. 1599. 7   Conference report to S. 1281, The NASA Authorization Act of 2005, H. Rept. 109-354, Section 101(a)(1).

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An Assessment of Balance in NASA’s Science Programs On the contrary, NASA’s science missions remain one of the Nation’s crowning achievements, and NASA is a world leader with 54 satellites and payloads currently operating in concert with the science community and our international partners. My decision to slow the rate of growth for NASA’s Science missions is simply a matter of how the Agency will use the available resources within the overall NASA portfolio.” The challenge for the committee, therefore, has been to recognize the multiple pressures on NASA, to weigh those in relation to science program goals and priorities that have been developed to meet stated national needs, and to fulfill the committee’s charge to provide constructive advice about how to achieve a balanced and robust program in the face of these realities. In responding to its charge, the committee used four criteria to measure the health of NASA’s proposed science programs: Capacity to make steady progress. A U.S. discipline-based research community (faculty, research scientists, postdoctoral trainees, and graduate students) and world-class research facilities need to be maintained at a level where the nation’s highest science priorities identified in NRC decadal surveys can be achieved at a reasonable pace and a new generation of researchers is trained to enable our nation’s leadership of the international community. Stability. This aspect of the health of the community relates to the avoidance of rapid downsizing or expansion in short periods of time. The conduct of science is a generational enterprise. Reconstituting a lost research community can take a decade or more to accomplish. Balance. The concept of balance across the disciplines means that at least the minimum health of each of the disciplines is maintained, although some disciplines may receive higher levels of support because of mission-related priorities. Balance is also used to refer to other aspects of NASA’s research portfolio, including balance between opportunities for new initiatives and capacity to support ongoing programs and missions, and balance between capacity-building and longer-term scientific development relative to nearer-term mission-driven needs. A particularly important aspect of balance is the ability to sustain a mix of large, medium, and small programs and missions8 and also research, data analysis, technology development, theoretical studies, and modeling. Robustness. Sufficient human resources and research infrastructure need to be maintained to enable the nation to ramp up research activities within a year or two as national needs change or as major unexpected scientific breakthroughs occur. The committee recognizes NASA’s budgetary pressures and the administrator’s need to set priorities and adjust specific program funding. However, any discussion about budget priorities and allocations across programs and projects must be viewed in the context of NASA’s flight program development management practices, which have led to significant divergence between initial cost estimates and final project costs. Weaknesses in managing project costs over the life of a project have the effect of diminishing the resources available for conducting new science—even when total budget numbers appear higher than in previous years. As this report discusses below, meaningful planning to meet NASA’s goals is not possible when costs of approved projects rise faster than the rate of change of available resources. 8   See National Research Council, Assessment of Mission Size Trade-offs in NASA’s Earth and Space Science Missions, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 2000.

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An Assessment of Balance in NASA’s Science Programs NASA 2006 STRATEGIC PLAN Every 3 years NASA produces a strategic plan. The latest plan was released in 2006 to accompany the agency’s FY 2007 budget proposal.9 According to the current strategic plan, the NASA vision statement is “to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery, and aeronautics research.” This is a change from the 2003 NASA vision statement, which was “to improve life here, to extend life to there, to find life beyond.” The 2006 document lists six strategic goals, which clearly set forth near-term NASA priorities: Fly the shuttle as safely as possible until its retirement, not later than 2010. Complete the International Space Station in a manner consistent with NASA’s international partner commitments and the needs of human exploration. Develop a balanced overall program of science, exploration, and aeronautics consistent with the redirection of the human spaceflight program to focus on exploration. Bring a new Crew Exploration Vehicle into service as soon as possible after shuttle retirement. Encourage the pursuit of appropriate partnerships with the emerging commercial space sector. Establish a lunar return program having the maximum possible utility for later missions to Mars and other destinations. NASA’s top priorities as reflected in its strategic plan are currently the shuttle and the space station, which together account for about 37 percent of the agency’s overall budget. In its FY 2006 budget request NASA produced an out-year budget projection that showed shuttle costs decreasing by 2008. These funds were expected to become available for the early stages of development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). NASA has now indicated that the shuttle budget will not decrease significantly in the 2007-2010 timeframe. In addition, the original plan was for as much as a 4-year gap between shuttle retirement and the first operational flight of the CEV. However, NASA hopes to advance the planned operational date for the CEV to 2012. The combined effects of no expected shuttle savings and accelerated CEV development have increased the budget pressure on the agency. Consequently, the science budgets in both the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) and the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) have been reduced compared to earlier projections. NASA SCIENCE PROVISIONS FOR FY 2007 AND BEYOND The majority of NASA’s science programs are managed in SMD, which is responsible for the space and Earth sciences, including development and operation of robotic science missions and supporting ground-based research, data analysis, and advanced technology development. ESMD is responsible for implementing the Vision’s human spaceflight projects such as the CEV and the Crew Launch Vehicle, and future projects such as the Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle and the Lunar Surface Access Module. ESMD is also responsible for the life and physical sciences research that is to be conducted on the ISS and for development of lunar robotic missions in support of future human lunar missions. The Space Operations Mission Directorate (SOMD) is responsible for operation of the space shuttle and the ISS. 9   The strategic plan is available at <www.nasa.gov/pdf/142303main_2006_NASA_Strategic_Plan_sm.pdf>.

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An Assessment of Balance in NASA’s Science Programs NASA’s FY 2007 budget request provides for a total of $16.8 billion, or an increase of 3.2 percent over the previous year.10 Of those funds, 32 percent ($5.33 billion) are for SMD,11 24 percent ($3.98 billion) are for ESMD, 37 percent ($6.23 billion) are for SOMD, and 4 percent ($724 million) are for the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate.12 Some resources that had been planned for SMD and ESMD in the FY 2006 budget projections have been transferred to SOMD to compensate for the projected shortfall in support for the shuttle and the ISS programs. Plans for SMD programs call for an increase of 1.5 percent in FY 2007 funding over FY 2006 and then annual increases of 1 percent in subsequent years. The impact on SMD program planning is most dramatically illustrated when one compares the rate of growth that had guided science program planning in 2004 compared to the present (see Figure 1.1). At the time that the Vision was announced, the SMD program13 was projected to grow robustly from about $5.5 billion in 2004 to about $7 billion in 2008. The new projections provide for $5.38 billion in 2008 and less than inflationary growth thereafter. The effect of the reductions in SMD will be to reduce the total funds available in 2007-2011 by $3.1 billion compared to program projections made in the FY 2006 budget. Changes in plans for science in the ESMD are more pronounced (see Figure 1.2). The FY 2005 budget projections would have had that program level off at slightly more than $900 million per year starting in FY 2006, but the FY 2007 budget projects a drop to about $300 million per year for FY 2007-2011, corresponding to a 69 percent reduction. Finally, NASA’s longer-term planning for human exploration provides an important context in which to consider the long-term prospects for science. Although NASA has not yet released a specific strategic plan for exploration activities on the Moon, which are to begin in the 2018 timeframe, the resource demands to support development of the needed exploration systems will be considerable. Office of Management and Budget representatives described to the committee an exploration systems budget profile that would grow to $8.8 billion in 2011 and then to over $14 billion in 2015, not including provisions for science or aeronautics. 10   NASA’s budget information is available at <www.nasa.gov/about/budget/index.html>. 11   The fraction of the agency’s budget allocated to space and Earth science surpassed 30 percent in 2001 and rose to 36 percent in 2004. 12   The remaining $492 million is for Cross-Agency Support Programs. 13   SMD was established in August 2004. In this report, references to “the SMD program” that predate SMD’s creation mean the programs that are now in SMD (space and Earth science).

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An Assessment of Balance in NASA’s Science Programs FIGURE 1.1 Five-year budget projections for space and Earth science as they were proposed by NASA for fiscal years 2004 through 2007. The actual appropriated level for the year in which the projections were proposed is also shown. Budget data provided by NASA. FIGURE 1.2 Five-year budget projections for microgravity life and physical sciences (human systems research and technology) as they were proposed by NASA for fiscal years 2004 through 2007. The actual appropriated level for the year in which the projections were proposed is also shown. Budget data provided by NASA.