Congress, in the report accompanying the FY 2005 appropriation bill for NASA, directed “the National Academies’ Space Studies Board (SSB) to conduct a thorough review of the science that NASA is proposing to undertake under the space exploration initiative and to develop 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.”1 This report provides the third and final component of the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) advisory response to that mandate. It presents the NRC’s assessment of NASA’s integrated strategy and proposed science program, as indicated in materials that accompany the NASA FY 2007 budget request.
More than four decades of extraordinary achievements of NASA science have captured the imaginations of people throughout the world, and those achievements continue to astonish us and expand our appreciation for the Earth, our solar system, and the universe beyond. 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’s science programs have 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.
Plans for programs in space and Earth science in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) differ markedly from planning assumptions of only 2 years ago. The impact on the SMD program is most dramatically illustrated when one compares the rate of growth that had guided science program planning in 2004 compared to the present. The total funding available for SMD programs in 2007-2011 is to be reduced by $3.1 billion below program projections that accompanied the FY 2006 budget (corresponding to a reduction of about 10 percent for the period FY 2006-2010). At the time that the Vision for Space Exploration (“the Vision”) was announced in 2004, the programs that are now in SMD were projected to grow robustly from about $5.5 billion in 2004 to about $7 billion in 2008 to accommodate the development of new scientific missions. As recently as the time of the FY 2006 budget request, the SMD budget for FY 2007 was projected at $5.96 billion. The actual request for SMD in FY 2007 is $5.33 billion, which is about $200 million less than was appropriated in 2004 even before taking inflation into account. Subsequent years have a projected growth of 1 percent, which is again less than the projected rate of inflation. Changes in plans for microgravity life and physical sciences in the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate are more pronounced. That program was supported at about $950 million in 2002 and was expected to grow to over $1.1 billion in 2008, but the new plan calls for a reduction to under $300 million in 2007 with little growth thereafter.2
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
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.
Astrobiology research has been severely reduced.
Explorers and other small missions have been delayed or canceled.
Initial technology work on future missions and emphasis on technical innovation have been reduced.
Recommendation 2. NASA should move immediately to correct the problems caused by reductions in the base of research and analysis programs, small missions, and initial technology work on future missions before the essential pipeline of human capital and technology is irrevocably disrupted.
If at all possible, the restoration of the small missions, R&A programs, and the technology investment in future missions should be accomplished with additional funding for science. The scale of the short-term resource allocation problem is modest, probably slightly more than 1 percent of the total NASA budget, but addressing that problem will help correct the immediate threats to the health of the research program and also permit NASA and its stakeholders to conduct a vigorous, open assessment of longer-term priorities and plans. Given the funding shortages associated with elements of the human spaceflight program, the committee further urges that funding for science (both the amounts requested and any modest additions that might be made) be isolated from other NASA accounts to ensure that the money is actually spent on science.
Finding 3. The microgravity life and physical sciences programs of NASA have suffered severe cutbacks that will lead to major reductions in the ability of scientists in these areas to contribute to NASA’s goals of long-duration human spaceflight.
Recommendation 3. Every effort should be made to preserve the essential ground-based and flight research that will be required to enable long-duration human spaceflight and to continue to foster a viable community that ultimately will be responsible for producing the essential knowledge required to execute the human spaceflight goals of the Vision for Space Exploration.
The scale of the short-term resource allocation required to revive this effort is also modest (less than 1 percent of the total NASA budget), yet addressing that problem will provide a continuing source of knowledge and community commitment that is absolutely critical for the success of this endeavor.
Finding 4. The major missions in space and Earth science are being executed at costs well in excess of the costs estimated at the time when the missions were recommended in the National Research Council’s decadal surveys for their disciplines. Consequently, the orderly planning process that has served the space and Earth science communities well has been disrupted, and balance among large, medium, and small missions has been difficult to maintain.
Recommendation 4. NASA should undertake independent, systematic, and comprehensive evaluations of the cost-to-complete of each of its space and Earth science missions that are under development, for the purpose of determining the adequacy of budget and schedule.
As part of this recommended NASA review, a careful examination of the approaches to cost, schedule, and risk management should be made, and a comprehensive examination should be done of options to reduce cost while maintaining a mission’s capability to achieve the science priorities for which it was recommended. The committee urges that steps be taken to allow all missions currently under development to make reasonable progress while the competitive assessment of projects across the SMD is underway. Major missions are an essential part of a balanced program—it is important to have large missions as well as medium and small missions—and finding ways to keep them on track and affordable is thus crucial.
Finding 5. A past strength of the NASA science programs, in both their planning and their execution, has been the intimate involvement of the scientific community. Some of the current mismatch between the NASA plans for the next 5 years and a balanced and robust program stems from the lack of an effective internal advisory structure at the level of NASA’s mission directorates.
Recommendation 5. NASA should engage with its reconstituted advisory committees as soon as possible for the purpose of determining how to create in the space and Earth science program a proper balance among large, medium, and small missions, and research and analysis programs, and for evaluating the advice in and the consequences of the results from the comprehensive reviews of the major missions called for in Recommendation 4. Reconstitution and engagement of advisory committees for the microgravity life and physical sciences are equally important and should be given attention.