Let's allow NASA to do what it was designed for: space exploration, and lots of it.

The original seven astronauts for Project Mercury, The US’ first effort at manned space flight.  Credit: NASA

Space scientists think that NASA, under the Bush administration has given them the shaft. It’s easy to see why. While NASA is bound to receive an overall 3.2% budget increase—in a year when many other agencies saw no increase—space science programs didn’t see much of it. Many smaller science programs, as well as funding for research and analysis, were cut back (or “delayed indefinitely”) to help pay for prioritized efforts like the James Webb Space Telescope. NASA has had to balance the needs of the space shuttle, space station, space science, earth science, aeronautics and new exploration programs. In an attempt to draw attention to their plight, space advocacy organization The Planetary Society ran an ad in the Washington Post on May 25, the 45th anniversary of the speech in which John F. Kennedy set the goal of a manned lunar landing by the end of the 1960s. In the ad, the planet Saturn was stuffed in a garbage can, with Europa lying beside it, next to a wadded-up ball of paper. “Don’t let space science get trashed,” was the ad’s desperate plea.

The knee-jerk reaction of many scientists has been to blame these problems on President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration (aka the “Vision”). After all, exploration programs are getting a 30% increase in the proposed budget. The situation, though, has much deeper roots. NASA is burdened with far more programs, and therefore far more constituencies, than it was in the halcyon days of JFK. Worse, NASA officials discovered last year that their predecessors had underestimated the cost of operating the shuttle by as much as $5 billion, money that now has to come from somewhere else—like science and aeronautics programs. The agency’s resources are spread too thin to carry out everything it wanted to do as recently as a year ago.

The truth is that post-Apollo NASA is overextended to the point that everything that takes place above the exosphere must ride the agency’s back. Climate data, atmospheric research—when did geoscience become part of NASA’s job? Last time I checked, it wasn’t called NASGA.

Some have argued that NASA should cancel the Vision or, barring that, end the shuttle and/or station programs now, which would free up billions of dollars for science. But that’s exactly the wrong approach to take. Instead, we need to accelerate the Vision.

Why the counterintuitive approach? First of all, while canceling big programs may be ideologically satisfying, it has effectively zero chance of success in Congress. Just last year, both houses of Congress overwhelmingly endorsed the President’s Vision. Both the shuttle and International Space Station (ISS) programs have their legions of defenders in Congress, not least because they represent enormous slices of pork. It’s also one of the country’s most prestigious Big Science efforts—a number of congressional representatives have even advocated keeping the shuttle flying after its scheduled retirement in 2010, despite the cost.

Second, in the long term, NASA will largely become the agency scientists want it to be. The shuttle program will most likely end in 2010, while NASA’s contribution to the ISS will fade out around the middle of the decade. By then, NASA will become an agency devoted principally to science and exploration by both humans and robots. As NASA administrator Michael Griffin put it in a speech earlier this year, “Exploration must become, in the public mind, nothing more or less than what NASA does.”

There are a few promising steps in that direction. A provision of last year’s NASA authorization bill designated the US segment of the ISS as a “national laboratory,” just like the Los Alamos or Lawrence Livermore laboratories. The purpose of that measure, its proponents advocate, is to broaden the range of potential government users—and thus potential funders. The success of this approach, though, depends on a fulcrum that has had, at best, a mixed track record—how much interest there is in the research that could be performed on the station.

Another effort, known by the ungainly name Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS), seeks to spur the development of private systems that could take over the delivery of cargo and astronauts to the space station. Such commercial systems could cost far less than what NASA would spend, freeing up money for science programs, wherever they may be newly housed, and exploration. NASA plans to spend $500 million through 2009 on COTS, but some have argued for an increase, funding more ventures up front and thus increasing the chances that a viable commercial alternative will emerge, so NASA will be free of the operating cost sooner.

What we need is to let NASA be NASA. Shift the burden of less mission-specific projects to other interested organizations, allowing the agency to focus on the core science and exploration programs that it’s best suited to do. These efforts don’t necessarily provide the near-term relief that scientists crave but do accelerate the transformation of NASA into a science and exploration agency.

The longer NASA takes to reform itself, the more likely it is that external pressures, like soaring budget deficits, could force a future president or Congress to make more drastic, adverse changes to the agency. This is a challenge that may prove to be far bigger than the one posed by Kennedy 45 years ago.

Jeff Foust runs the Space Politics blog and the online publication The Space Review. He has a PhD in planetary sciences from MIT.

Originally published July 24, 2006

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