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NASA's Science Mission Aborted

Researchers are dismayed as science projects and climate satellites are slashed to pay for the space station and shuttle.

Scientists and educators around the country are growing increasingly concerned about ongoing budget cuts by NASA that seem to go deep into the very areas the space agency says it wants to emphasize. Among the cuts, revealed over the last few weeks, have been the scaling back of Earth-sensing and astrophysics satellites, educational projects, and engineering tests.

A computer art rendering of a satellite in NASA’s Explorer program that traveled one million miles from Earth to study cosmic phenomena. The Explorer program has been cut back severely. (Courtesy of NASA.)

Jackie Hewitt, director of MIT’s Kavli Center for Space and Astrophysics Research, says that the NASA cuts have been affecting university-level research – with potentially dire consequences for the next generation of space research. She points out that the Explorer program, a set of relatively low-cost science missions that included such successes as a cosmology satellite called WMAP, has been “reduced almost to nothing.” Such programs have been essential, she says, as a training ground for new space scientists, and eliminating them “is just not sustainable. If NASA wants to stop doing space science, that’s what’s being set up. Is that what the nation wants?”

NASA budget cuts over the last few months have also struck spending for astrobiology programs, meant to learn about life in the rest of the universe; a new program called Beyond Einstein, aimed at learning about dark energy; and the cancellation or cutback in other research satellites, including one called NPOESS, designed to gather more information about the Earth and its climate.

At MIT, another space research project was slashed recently, the Space Nanotechnology Laboratory, which Hewitt says is not only important for technology development but also crucial for applications such as future X-ray telescopes for astrophysics research.

According to Hewitt, who is also a member of the National Research Council’s Space Studies Board, which put out a report last month raising the alarm about the impacts of NASA’s science cutbacks, says that “labs have been closing left and right, people are going off and working for other organizations,” which would make it difficult for some programs to be restarted even if funding gets restored in the future. “We’re losing expertise,” she says. Yet there has been relatively little backlash, because “we have not had a sudden catastrophic funding cut that’s closed a center. I would describe it as more of an erosion.”

Congress is currently going through the process of marking up the NASA budget request for fiscal 2007, and last week the House voted to reinstate $75 million of the $400 million in cuts from scientific research that the administration had proposed. The cuts – despite NASA boss Mike Griffin’s promise just six months ago that he would cut “not one dime” from NASA’s science programs – were the result of a continuing shift of resources toward the beleaguered space shuttle, now set to launch on July 1, and to the space station, whose reason for being is increasingly in question.

“NASA is finding itself in the position of being asked to do more than it can with the available funding,” says Harvey Tananbaum, director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Chandra X-Ray Center and also a member of the Space Studies Board. And even if the House and Senate end up agreeing to put back some of the funding that was to be cut from science, “sometimes the wrong things get put in,” Tananbaum says, meaning not the priorities determined by scientific review panels. Many students are leaving space sciences for other fields already, he says. “It’s not the death of the field. But it is disruptive, it’s inefficient.”

Berrien Moore, director of the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space at the University of New Hampshire, says the NASA cuts, including the drastic scaling back of an environmental and climate-monitoring satellite program, “is a debacle…The shuttle and the [space] station are killing the budget for science.”

Although the International Space Station remains a budgetary priority, some scientists feel that its usefulness for carrying out scientific research has already been diminished, by, for example, the cancellation of a large centrifuge seen as essential for biological research.

That cancellation, says Keith Cowing of the watchdog website NASA Watch, will “set back the ability” to develop ways to prevent the loss of muscle and bone by astronauts in prolonged weightlessness. And yet, he says, President Bush’s exploration initiative is supposed to be leading toward trips to “Mars and beyond,” where such measures will be essential.

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