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Space Studies Board: Annual Report 2007 6.3 Overview Hearing: Balance of Funding at NASA TESTIMONY BEFORE THE HOUSE COMMITTEE ON APPROPRIATIONS SUBCOMMITTEE ON COMMERCE, STATE, JUSTICE AND RELATED AGENCIES March 9, 2007 Lennard A. Fisk NRC Space Studies Board Mr. Chairman, members of the subcommittee, thank you for inviting me here to testify today. My name is Lennard Fisk and I am the Thomas M. Donahue Distinguished University Professor of Space Science at the University of Michigan. I also served from 1987 to 1993 as the NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science and Applications. I appear here today in my capacity as the Chair of the National Research Council Space Studies Board. The views that I will express, however, are my own. There are three issues that I would like to discuss today. First, I would like to share my thoughts on what will—or shall we say could be––accomplished in space and Earth science. I am dealing here with the traditional space science disciplines: astrophysics, planetary exploration, heliophysics, and Earth science. Second, I want to discuss what I perceive is the future of human exploration and, finally, I will consider the balance of funding at NASA between space and Earth science and human space exploration. I want to emphasize that as in any discussion of the future there is a difference between what will be and what could be. There are certain trends in the space and Earth science program, and in human space exploration, which if allowed to continue portend a less than optimum future. Conversely, there are actions that can be taken that will improve our prospects for success. The Future of Space and Earth Science Let me begin with the future of space and Earth science. To make this projection, we need first to discuss how science is accomplished. Science is about making discoveries—they can be profound discoveries that alter the concepts we hold of our place in the cosmos, or they can be minor discoveries that reveal some new aspect of a previously studied process. Discoveries lead to insight, insight to knowledge, and in some cases knowledge yields immediate applications that benefit society. Knowledge almost always benefits society in the long run. A measure then of the health of a science discipline is the pace at which discoveries are being made. Similarly, the prospects for the future of a science discipline can be measured by whether there are any factors that limit the pace of discovery. Space and Earth science is primarily an observational science. Our discoveries thus come from observations. We do not have much success in predicting in advance what we will observe. Nature appears to be more imaginative than we are. Rather, its secrets are revealed first by observing, and then by constructing a theory or a model that explains the observations. In the beginning of the space program, when all of space was new to us, every observation was a discovery. There might be concern, I suppose, as the various disciplines of space and Earth science have evolved, and we have observed so much, that the pace of discovery will diminish. I can assure you that it need not. Each of the disciplines in space and Earth science has demonstrated that there are continuing discoveries to be made, and has positioned itself to be able to do so. Technology has continued to advance to where more detailed and revealing observations can be made. And our understanding of prior observations has improved to where we can search intelligently for new knowledge. For each discipline of space and Earth science we can cite a breakthrough that awaits us. In astrophysics there is the fundamental question of what is the “dark energy” that appears to be powering the expansion of the universe. In planetary exploration, the fundamental question is whether there is or was life elsewhere in the solar system. In Earth science—what are the consequences of global climate change and how should we as a civilization adapt. In heliophysics—how does the Sun work and influence the Earth and its space environment. To be sure, in each discipline there are sub-disciplines that have been well worked over and discoveries will be at best incremental. These are
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Space Studies Board: Annual Report 2007 the exceptions, compared with the overwhelming opportunities that await us to profoundly alter our understanding of the Earth, the solar system, and the universe beyond. Given that abundant discoveries await us, if we are only bold enough to make the observations, the primary determinant of a bright future for space and Earth science is the rate at which we make new observations; that is, the rate of new space missions. And here the trends are very disturbing. The NSF evaluates the health of its various science sub-disciplines by considering proposal pressure. If a field is healthy, the NSF receives many proposals from the community. If the field is funded at the correct level the very best of these proposals can be supported. In space and Earth science, we have a similar measure of discipline health. In the decadal survey process, the community proposes missions that the survey evaluates, recommending funding only for the very best that fit in a funding model that is consistent with the expected funding for that discipline within NASA. A case in point occurred in our recent Earth science “decadal survey,” Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond. The community proposed more than 100 mission concepts, which was culled to a list of 35 missions that were important to pursue, of which 17 could fit in the funding model, and then only by arguing that Earth science funding should increase by a third. In fact, for each science discipline in NASA there is a sobering downward trend in missions and thus opportunities for discovery. In the mid-1990s there were an average of 7 launches per year for missions in space and Earth science. In the last few years, the rate is more like 5 per year. In 2010-2012 the rate is projected to be under 2 per year. There are some disciplines for which the downward trend in opportunities for discovery is clearly unacceptable. In Earth science, society is demanding to know the consequences of global climate change in order to plan our future. In the other disciplines of space science, it is a grating waste of the nation’s capabilities to reduce our pace of discovery. We have painstakingly built the infrastructure to make the nation foremost in the scientific exploration of space, and to allow it to atrophy borders on neglect. The Administration and Congress will need to decide what rate of discovery in space and Earth science they want, and that will set an appropriate budget level. At a minimum it needs to be a budget that does not reduce the pace of discovery; that is, one that at least retains current funding levels adjusted for inflation. That is not an insurmountable goal. It requires that funding that was removed from space science in the last few years be restored, and that out-year budgets increase with inflation. For Earth science the problem is more severe, since even the minimum acceptable program requires a 33% increase over the current funding level. In all disciplines, the optimum funding level for space and earth science, in which discoveries are being made at a rate limited only by our ingenuity, is much higher still. Budgets could easily be doubled without concern that the potential for fundamental discoveries from each mission would be compromised. There is another limiting factor on the rate of discovery in space and Earth science, and that is the vitality of our disciplines. Science, as with any pursuit that requires excellence, depends on competition to ensure vitality and quality. Here, there are some interesting corporate analogues. Large corporations can become complacent, secure in their size and past records of accomplishment. The large corporations can be jarred out of their complacency by the introduction of so-called disruptive technologies that revolutionize the products and the markets served. These revolutionary technologies can be introduced by small start-up companies, or by competitors. The result can be a healthier, expanding economy. The issue for space and Earth science is how do we ensure the continual infusion of our equivalent of revolutionary technologies, so that we too maintain our quality and vibrancy, and have a healthy, expanding space program. How do we ensure the infusion of new and better observing techniques, new minds, new ideas that challenge the established concepts? It is in fact very difficult to ensure the infusion of revolutionary technologies and concepts in budgets that are not growing. Available funds support the established technologies and the established researchers. In our corporate analogy, the funds to introduce revolutionary technologies do not come from existing funds, but rather from new investments. The question in space and Earth science is then where do our new investments come from. There is a need to maintain or better yet optimize the pace of discovery. There is a need to maintain the quality and vibrancy of the NASA science program through the introduction of revolutionary technologies and concepts. Both requirements demand a budget for space and Earth science that is growing. I remind you that the projected budget for space and Earth science in NASA grows at only 1% per year, which is a declining budget when inflation is included. There needs instead to be real growth.
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Space Studies Board: Annual Report 2007 The Future of Human Space Exploration Let me turn now to the issue of human space exploration. We are embarking on a bold plan to return to the Moon, and resume human expansion into the solar system. We have said, rather explicitly, that the nation made a mistake in 1972 when we abandoned the Apollo program, and the vast infrastructure we had built to place humans on the Moon. I personally agree. It is indeed time to resume the journey. My opinion is based on a simple expectation. When I imagine our civilization centuries from now, I find it inconceivable that we will not have become a true spacefaring civilization, with routine human flights throughout our solar system, and perhaps beyond. The question then is simply when do we start and who leads. And I would argue that now is a good time, and we should be the leaders. Having said that, I am concerned that we are failing in our efforts to resume the human journey into space. In evaluating our prospects, it is worthwhile to ask why did we abandon the Apollo program in 1972? That was a time early in my career as a scientist, but I do not recall a public outcry that abandonment was a mistake. Rather, the American people were proud and satisfied that our nation had won the so-called space race, and they no longer perceived that there was a foreign threat to our security from, in this case, the Russians being more capable than we were in space. Moreover, there was a major public distraction as we moved to extract ourselves from the Vietnam War. Why is the situation today different from what it was in 1972? The nation does not appear to be overly concerned with foreign threats from space. We are perhaps concerned about potential military threats, but far less so about who will get to the Moon. And we are certainly preoccupied as a nation with extracting ourselves from the Iraq War. The proof that the situation today is not more favorable for human exploration than it was in 1972 can be found in the budgets. Not since FY2005, when the Vision for Space Exploration was first announced, has the budget provided by the Administration or the Congress been equal to the projected cost of this program. Many of us believe that the initial projected costs for returning to the Moon were grossly inadequate, and we have not realized even this level of funding. We should remind ourselves of the lessons of the development of the Shuttle in the late 1970s. It too was underfunded, which forced technical decisions that resulted in a vehicle that although capable was less reliable and far more costly to operate than initially anticipated. Under the adage that something is worth doing only if it is worth doing well, I suggest that we are at a major decision point in the human exploration program to return to the Moon. We need to decide if we are truly committed at this time to human expansion into space, which I hope we are, and commit the resources necessary to be successful. And I would argue that the required resources should be provided because human expansion into space by itself is a worthy adventure for our nation, not because there are other parts of the NASA budget that can be cannibalized to provide even minimal funding. The Balance of Funding Between Space and Earth Science and Human Space Exploration Let me turn finally to the coupling between space and Earth science and human exploration. In many ways these are separate efforts. They can be coupled, however, through their funding needs. In the beginning of the space program, the generous funding that was available for the Apollo program was shared with space science, and built the vast infrastructure for the pursuit of science that we enjoy today. Throughout much of the subsequent history of NASA, the space and Earth science budget tracked the agency’s budget, rising and falling with the success the agency had as a whole in obtaining funding. In the mid-1990s, however, the coupling between the funding for space and Earth science and for human space fight was removed. Space and Earth science funding was allowed to grow in proportion to the growth in non-defense discretionary spending, whereas NASA as a whole, and in particular human space flight, was not allowed to grow at this rate. Human space flight was judged to be less in the nation’s interest, compared to space and Earth science. As a result, the space and Earth science budget grew to be a much larger share of the NASA budget than in the past. With the implementation of the Vision for Exploration, funding for space and Earth science in NASA and human space exploration has again been coupled. Science has been perceived as growing at a rate too rapid, compared to other agency needs. The growth that science was to receive, had it followed its historical trend of growth throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, has been used as a bank to provide the funding that human exploration was not able to obtain on its own.
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Space Studies Board: Annual Report 2007 The American Competitiveness Initiative has resulted in increases in funding for such scientific endeavors as the National Science Foundation and the Office of Science in the Department of Energy. It is hard to argue that the science pursued by the NSF and the DoE Office of Science is fundamentally different from the science pursued by space and Earth science in NASA. All yield fundamental knowledge important for U.S. competitiveness. It is interesting to note that had space and Earth science in NASA received the same percentage increases as the NSF in FY2007 it would have followed its historical rate of growth in funding. There is an important policy decision to make. Should funding for space and Earth science be tied to the fortunes of the human exploration program of NASA and be funded in proportion to what the nation is prepared to spend on space? Or should space and Earth science be viewed as in integral part of the scientific fabric of the nation, and be funded in proportion to what the nation is prepared to invest in science? I personally would argue for the latter. Thank you very much.