Findings and Recommendations
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 ISS, returning humans to the Moon, maintaining vigorous space and Earth science and microgravity life and physical sciences programs, and sustaining capabilities in aeronautical research.
Both the Vision, when it was announced in 2004, and the NASA Authorization Act of 2005 were based on administration projections of total NASA funding that have not been requested subsequently. Furthermore, demands have grown for resources for flights of the space shuttle, completion of the ISS, and efforts to shorten the gap between retirement of the space shuttle (mandated for 2010) and availability of a new crew exploration vehicle (mandated by 2014), as well as for higher costs of science missions. As a result the resources are inadequate to accomplish NASA’s broad missions of national importance.
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.
In Chapter 1, the committee lists four criteria by which it assessed NASA’s science programs in response to the committee’s charge. 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 program 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 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
focused topics, provide for innovation and the use of new approaches that are difficult to incorporate into the long planning cycles needed to get a mission into the strategic mission queues, and provide a particularly substantial means to engage and train science and engineering students in the full life cycle of space research projects. The steady successes and productivity of the small missions are strong arguments for their role in a balanced overall mix of mission sizes.2
Initial technology work on future missions and emphasis on technical innovation have been reduced. As a 1998 NRC report, Assessment of Technology Development in NASA’s Office of Space Science,3 noted, development and utilization of new technologies have always been pivotal elements of the space program. Advances in spaceflight and space science, and the beneficial applications of new knowledge from space research, have been driven, or constrained, by the pace of growth in technological capabilities and their innovative exploitation to open new fields and pursue new scientific questions. As space research strives today to tackle increasingly complex scientific problems and to do so by accomplishing more with less, the effective development, adaptation, and adoption of new technologies are every bit as important as in the past, and probably more so. New opportunities also now exist to create truly innovative new technologies to meet NASA’s needs by pursuing interdisciplinary approaches that span engineering, physical sciences, and the life sciences. Reductions in the resources to provide these kinds of long-lead-time technology investments will delay readiness for future missions and increase their technological, schedule, and cost risk, and hence decrease the likelihood of their success in the long term.
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 (including astrobiology), and the technology investment in future missions should be accomplished with additional funding for science. The committee does not intend to compound the disruptions by impacting other parts of the space science portfolio such as the larger missions. The scale of the immediate 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 constraints associated with elements of the human spaceflight program, the committee further urges that funding for science 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.
For much of its history, building the ISS was justified in terms of the life and physical sciences research that it would enable. As the space station’s research capabilities have been scaled back, NASA has also reduced support for these research areas. However, if the agency is to pursue long-duration human lunar, and ultimately Mars, missions, it will have to answer fundamental questions about issues such as how the human body reacts to long-duration spaceflight, what microgravity and radiation countermeasures are mandatory for astronaut survival and mission effectiveness, and how materials and
new technological systems act in the space environment.4 Current NASA funds for human health research focus on testing and improving existing technologies that are unlikely to meet NASA’s long-term needs. NASA is not planning to support sufficient fundamental problem-oriented research on Earth or in space necessary to identify and define problems that are critical to human survival and performance in long-term spaceflight, or to develop new scientifically grounded technologies and countermeasures to overcome these challenges.
The proposed FY 2007 program implements a drastic reduction in the life and physical sciences program to about one-third of its former size, thereby eliminating whole research areas and research communities and reducing the scientific use of the ISS to a fraction of its previously expected level. By NASA’s count, 240 grants already have been terminated, with the result of removing support from more than 500 postdoctoral fellows and graduate and undergraduate students, and additional cuts are planned for the fall of 2006. The research that was to be conducted under these grants, including important ground-based research, is fundamental to the development of sufficient understanding of human physiology and of technology in the environment of space so as to be able to undertake long-duration human spaceflight.
NASA has rationalized these reductions based on the need to use the funds for the development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle, which is to replace the space shuttle. In many ways, then, the reductions in life and microgravity sciences programs are the most egregious example of the unfortunate choices that NASA has had to make because the overall funding for the agency is inadequate for its many responsibilities. NASA is being compelled to accommodate near-term necessities at the expense of the future of human spaceflight. The committee has serious doubts about whether the necessary research community can be reconstituted rapidly enough later so that it can meet NASA’s needs in time to support critical exploration risk assessments, systems choices, and development.
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 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.
NASA is known for its flagship missions, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, and will be known in the future for such flagship missions as the James Webb Space Telescope. These missions have strong endorsements in the decadal strategy surveys for their disciplines, and NASA is to be commended for pursuing these missions as a high priority in response to NRC advice.
A problem has arisen, however, in the execution of a number of the missions. Decadal surveys offer advice on the full range of science in their discipline. They rank missions to be pursued by category—large, medium, and small; they offer advice on R&A programs; and they balance the aspirations of the various subdisciplines. They perform this ranking and offer this advice based on NASA estimates of the costs of the missions and of the overall funding that is likely to be available for the
discipline. A number of missions in development, however, are costing substantially more than they were estimated to cost at the time of the decadal survey that recommended them, with the result that it is not now possible to execute the broad range of programs recommended in the decadal surveys for these disciplines on the recommended timescales. In particular, within the current funding constraints, it is not possible to maintain the proper balance among large, medium, and small missions, or with R&A programs, nor is it possible to maintain a vibrant program in all the various subdisciplines.
The specific causes of problems with the execution of the larger missions are complex and difficult to discern. Some mission costs were undoubtedly underestimated and/or were developed with inadequate reserves at the time the missions were recommended. However, deficiencies in program execution (including inadequate assessment of technical risk, problems with systems planning or development, changing technical and management requirements, changing internal NASA costs, and growing launch costs) have also contributed substantial additional burdens to the program. Put as simply and directly as possible, the committee believes that NASA needs to improve the execution of its flight programs.
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 done, and a comprehensive examination should be made 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.
Under normal circumstances, internal NASA committees would be providing tactical advice, and the NRC committees would follow their long-standing role of validating NASA’s choices with respect to the decadal and other surveys. However, these are not normal circumstances. External scientific involvement was absent in the construction of the program that accompanied the FY 2007 budget; had an advisory structure existed, it could have warned NASA of the outcry that would accompany cuts to the R&A budgets and other decisions. Unless an adequate, effective, and representative advisory process is instituted, this process will repeat itself. As a 2004 NRC report stated, a scientific community “that has some ‘ownership’ in the program creates ‘constructive tension’ that pushes the programs to excel.”5
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.