Friday, May 05, 2006

NASA's in bad shape

This is obvious for those of us in astronomy, but for non-astro folks, it might have gone unnoticed. NASA's having some major problems now. Basically, the president decided NASA should shift towards preparing to send humans to the moon and Mars. While an Apollo-style charge might be cool, that only works if you have Apollo-style funding to go with it.

Also entering the picture is completeing the long overdue and long overbudget international space station. Evidently, the US made "international committments" that the higher ups feel that they must honor, even though the science plans for the space station have been so drastically reduced that the whole thing will basically be abandoned shortly after completing it. In order to complete it, we have to return the space shuttle to flight (yes, there was another flight, but it had foam problems again, so they're still working on getting it back to back to flight). Again, the irony is that the shuttle is now scheduled to be decommissioned not long after completeing the space station. The hope is that some new better launch vehicle (with the intent to be part of the Moon and Mars thing) will be avaliable shortly after retiring the shuttle. IMHO, the reality is that there will probably be a big gap when there's no US launch vehicle to send people to the space station. (Remember SkyLab, our first space station? It crashed back into Earth while we were developing the space shuttle.)

Of course, returning the space shuttle to flight, building the space station, building a new human launch vehicle, and sending people to the Moon and Mars takes big bucks. However, the president/Congress haven't provided those extra bucks. Once there was supposedly a "wall" separating the budgets for space missions and science, but apparently that idea has been abandoned. So NASA is trying to cover those costs (as well as things like a mission to service/deorbit Hubble and build the James Webb Space Telescope "on budget" (but using a revised budgetting standard that makes things seem like they cost more)) by cutting back on many things, including large space missions but also including small missions, the analysis of data from current/previous missions, and the funding to theoretical interpretation of the observations. Basically, NASA is trying to cover these expenses by cutting back on the astrophysicists who actually do the science that makes those missions worthwhile. Obviously, you have to cut _a lot_ of postdoc/graduate student stipends to cover the cost of building a new space ship to send to the Moon. But that's a big part of the strategy that NASA administrators are planning on!

As a result of this many astronomers are facing extremely severe budgets. Advisors who started graduate students on thesis projects are learning that already approved funding is being cut. The graduate students who have begun the long and complex training and begun their thesis projects are wondering how they'll get paid in the next year or two and if they should abandon their previous work and/or change career paths. Postdocs who have already been trained are seriously considering leaving the country and/or the field. To give you some idea of the scale "Already, 240 grants affecting 500 postdoctoral fellows, graduate and undergraduate students have been terminated." (from the CNN link below), and from what we understand this is only the beginning. Other missions that were well along the way (some within a year of being launched) are being delayed by multiple years. In many cases, these delays will actually increase the mission costs, since you have to retain the key engineers the whole time and then rehire and retrain people to do the jobs of the people that you let go. And many missions are being descoped and delayed, or in some cases put in an holding pattern (wihtout funding) of unknown duration (seems a lot like "canceled" to the people working on those missions).

As a result of all this, astronomers are starting to complain loudly, even contacting politicans directly to complain about the decisions being made at NASA. Now the National Research Council has issued a report that will hopefully help scientists better argue for restore some sanity to the NASA budget.

Politicans: If you are going to give NASA specific goals (e.g., send humans to the Moon and Mars), then you must give NASA the funding to acheive those goals realistically without dramatically cutting the projects that the agency has already started and invested in. If you are going to give NASA a fixed budget, then let scientists tell NASA how best to spend that money to advance science. Scientists have estalished programs like the decadal reviews that communicate to policy makers the major projects that scientists think should be funded.

Study Finds Money Gap at NASA - New York Times

Report: NASA lacks science funds - CNN

NASA Watch (source of general NASA gossip)


Blogger Vincent said...

But this story has a totally different view of the NASA budget. :-)

5/06/2006 12:52:00 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

Ironically, The Denarius IV mission would be a lot cheaper than many large NASA missions. The incremental production cost of the US government printing a bunch of $100 bills is pretty small and if they're launched into space never to be used on Earth then printing them doesn't contribute to any inflationary pressure. So the real cost of a Denarius IV mission would basically be dominated by the launch cost. $700M in $100 bills would be about 7,000kg. If they used a Delta IV, then the launch cost would be about $1.3e8. (Although, if they insist on mixing in many $50's then that would push the payload weight up to a more expensive launch vehicle.) That's a pretty small budget for a NASA mission. (No suprise, as most missions have significant costs other than launch.)

However, the timetable for developing a Denarius IV mission proposed in the Onion is totally unrealistic.

5/06/2006 01:53:00 AM  
Blogger Vincent said...

That may be one of the best blog comments I've ever read.

5/07/2006 07:07:00 PM  
Blogger Eric said...


On a more serious note, there is some hope that scientists concerns are reaching politicans...

Letter From House Science Committee Democrats to the House Appropriations Committee Regarding Issues with the NASA FY 2007 Budget Request

5/12/2006 01:21:00 AM  

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