NASA's "Bizarre" Cuts

The director of the Planetary Society says the space agency is robbing science missions and manned exploration.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) fared better than many other government agencies in President Bush’s budget request for 2007, which was released on February 6. The administration requested $16.8 billion for NASA, a 3.2 percent increase over its 2006 funding (not counting emergency funding in 2006 for Hurricane Katrina recovery). After accounting for inflation, that amounts to an essentially flat budget for NASA.

But the administration’s view of how NASA should spend the money has irked many proponents of the scientific exploration of space. The president’s budget includes just under $4 billion for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, mostly for the development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), an Apollo-like capsule slated to replace the shuttle for manned spaceflight by 2014.

That spending is needed to keep NASA on track with President Bush’s 2004 Vision for Space Exploration, which proposes sending humans back to the moon and eventually Mars. But to keep operating the three remaining space shuttles and finish building the International Space Station, NASA will take away $1 billion previously promised for CEV development and $1.5 billion promised for space science.

Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society in Pasadena, CA, says he’s troubled by the budget’s emphasis on the space shuttles – which he believes should be retired immediately in favor of accelerated development of the CEV and the accompanying Heavy Launch Vehicle (HLV).

Friedman, who cofounded the Planetary Society in 1980 with Carl Sagan and space scientist Bruce Murray, argues that continuing to prop up the aging space shuttle fleet will derail both the moon and Mars missions and important science projects. Technology Review’s Wade Roush interviewed Friedman on February 6.

Technology Review: When the Bush administration’s budget numbers for NASA came out today, and the agency said it would have to cut science programs, what was your first reaction?

Louis Friedman: I don’t think we were shocked. But, to be honest, the news is worse than we expected. It is such a complete attack on science, it’s just starting to sink in. NASA freely says science has been the crown jewel of agency – and then they say ‘We have to excise it.’ It’s just bizarre.

During the old days at NASA, the saying was that you reward failure and you punish success. This seems to be that again: take the successful part of the program and cut it back. We support fully the Vision for Space Exploration and the reform in the program to build the new vehicles – but this is not what the new budget does. It basically returns to the old vision, by making a new investment in the shuttle.

TR: Just last year, NASA scientists were saying they expected increases of six, seven, or eight percent for science missions for the next several years. Now they’ll be getting about one percent a year. Why the sudden turnaround, and why shift those resources to the space shuttle?

LF: There is a protection-of-jobs issue which is actually dominant. The point is that we have to make that transition [from the shuttle to the CEV and HLV] sometime, and the sooner we make it, the less serious and the more honest it will be. We could start those transitions to the CEV and the HLV and new cargo vehicles right now. We might have to pay a little extra for that, so we might be facing the same cutback in science this year. But at least we wouldn’t be facing those cuts farther out – in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011.

TR: Which science missions will be hit hardest by the reduced growth in funding?

LF: The ones I’m most concerned about are the mission to Europa and the Terrestrial Planet Finder. These missions are fundamental to exploring space. The idea of the Europa mission is to see an undersea ocean that might be an abode for life. The decision not to do it now is a decision not to do it for the next decade. Basically, we’re putting that mission off the books – which is a historic change in where NASA’s going.

I’m concerned about the Terrestrial Planet Finder for all the same reasons. A very powerful goal driving our whole reason for having a space program is understanding ourselves and our possible analogs out there in the universe.

But I guess my biggest concern is that I see the whole Vision for Space Exploration – that humans should go into orbit and to the moon and on to Mars – in danger of being wiped out, because basically the shuttle funding will continue to grow. They’re digging themselves deeper and deeper into the shuttle hole. Things won’t go perfectly [with the CEV and HLV], and they’ll have to extend the shuttle’s life in order to deal with the expanding gap between the shuttle and the next-generation human flight capability, and they’ll have to make compromises that will end up delaying all space exploration.

TR: Well, we probably do need some kind of human spaceflight capability in order to finish the International Space Station and keep it supplied. Don’t we need the space shuttle to do that?

LF: In an ideal world, yes, the shuttle should be used to complete the space station. It is the only vehicle on Earth that can take the Japanese and European modules up there. However, the shuttle isn’t ideal. It’s down to three vehicles, and it’s having trouble on every flight. After the Columbia accident there was a two-and-a-half-year delay before the return to flight, and another year probably after that until the next mission. So it is unreasonable to expect that all will go well.

And to base the current and the future program on the idea that all will go well is bad planning, not just for us but for our European and Japanese partners. We need to tell them we have an emergency and the shuttle just can’t do it, and that they’ll have to accept a several-year delay. If we face that problem now, it would be much more realistic, and we could better afford the transition. What I fear right now is that the shuttle decision will mean that we can’t afford the transition.

TR: There’s a longstanding debate about whether NASA should be putting more resources into robotic space exploration or manned spaceflight. How will the new budget affect that debate?

LF: We fully support the goal of human space flight. But this “anti-science” budget will basically bring a negative reaction from the science community and reopen that “human versus robot” contentiousness – which had largely been done away with.

TR: Okay, so what balance should NASA try to strike between space science and manned exploration?

LF: They need to be seen working together. The president’s moon-Mars vision seemed to have that. It was going to be a mix of things being done on Mars robotically, with successive steps to set up a human lunar presence that would in turn lead to a Mars mission. It was all seen as leading to sending humans to Mars.

Now they seem to be getting lost in the details. John F. Kennedy said that we were going to send humans to the moon and return them and we’re going to do it in this decade. He didn’t say we’re going to have orbiters and CEVs and moon bases and new launch vehicles. He relegated all that to five words in his speech – “and do the other things.” The reverse seems to be happening now. They seem to be doing all the other things and not moving toward the goal.

They need to have a program of exploration that’s seen to be moving the human presence outward and answering questions about the universe. That’s what excited the public about the Mars Rovers and the Hubble Space Telescope. And I’m afraid they’re going to lose that.

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