NRC Panel Pans NASA’s Draft Science Plan

By Frank Morring, Jr.
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology
December 09, 2013
Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA's draft science plan looks as if it “was written by a committee without the benefit of a cohesive editing effort,” raising serious concerns about the long-term health of the U.S. space-science effort.

A panel of scientists from fields NASA spends $5 billion a year to address finds that the draft strategic plan fails to tackle the agency's uncertain funding outlook in a meaningful way. This means important exploration capabilities could fall by the wayside and “a generation of scientists” may be lost in some disciplines, they say.

“One of the most fundamental challenges [facing the Science Mission Directorate (SMD)] is the uncertain and apparently decreasing level of available funding for space science in real terms, because this has dramatic and real impacts to plans and execution,” a National Research Council (NRC) panel, convened to review the draft science plan, concluded. “This fiscal reality makes it more important than ever for SMD to have a clearly articulated and consistently applied method for prioritizing why and how its scarce fiscal resources will be apportioned.”

The panel's report, requested by Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, the Hubble-servicing astronaut who runs SMD, underscores the problems NASA faces in sustaining the space-science program it built over 50-plus years. It was prepared by the Space Studies Board panel that was chaired by the University of Michigan's Dr. James P. Bagian, who conducted biomedical research as an astronaut-scientist on two shuttle missions.

The report urges greater attention to “balance” among science missions—by discipline and cost. It also warns against “false expectations” that substantial progress will be achieved without significant resources

Two of the agency's high-profile Mars missions highlight the NRC panel's main points. There is a “general perception that NASA has not been the most reliable partner in international activities,” the panel states in apparent reference to NASA's bailing out of a long-standing cooperative effort with the European Space Agency to cache samples on the red planet's surface for eventual return to Earth.

That budget-driven decision was followed by a drastic cut in NASA's overall planetary sciences budget on the grounds that the discipline would benefit from the nuclear-powered Curiosity rover for many years. This not only hampers international cooperation (AW&ST Nov. 25, p. 46), the start-and-stop approach also upsets the careful division of resources needed among different types of science, with potentially harmful results, the panel found.

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