Vision threatens space science

President Bush's vow to give NASA a `focus and vision' for exploration could shortchange important science.

February 13, 2005|By Frank D. Roylance

Thirteen months ago, President Bush stood before an audience at NASA headquarters in Washington and set what he said was a "new course" for the nation's space program.

"We will give NASA a new focus and vision for future exploration," he said. "We will build new ships to carry man forward into the universe, to gain a new foothold on the moon, and to prepare for new journeys to worlds beyond our own.

They were inspiring words -- echoes of President John F. Kennedy's challenge to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the nation in 1961 to land a man on the moon -- and calculated to shove a manned space program stuck in low-Earth orbit off toward the cosmos.

But for some space scientists, Bush's "new course looks as if it is being driven too much by politics and the impulse for human exploration, and too little by scientific curiosity and the consensus of the scientific community.

Instead of debating and setting carefully considered priorities, they say, space science is being told to serve Bush's vision or stay home and scramble for whatever science dollars are left over.

It's not the way the best science gets done, says Steven V.W. Beckwith, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

"The combination of market-driven or idea-driven, bottoms-up proposals, with NASA's very careful roadmap strategy, has resulted in making space science the real jewel in NASA's crown of accomplishment, he says. "I am concerned that changing to a more centrally planned system of science goals will have a dampening effect on our ability to do real space science in the future."

NASA's decision not to provide money for a robotic or manned rescue mission to the Hubble Space Telescope tops many lists of worthy missions that have slipped or fallen as NASA sets its focus on exploring the moon and Mars.

But there are others. One is "Beyond Einstein," a series of astrophysics missions designed to answer such questions as what powered the big bang, which in theory created the universe; what happens to space, time and matter at the edge of a black hole, and what is pulling the universe apart.

Another is JIMO (Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter), a high-priority mission to look for saltwater oceans, and perhaps life, beneath the ice that covers the Jovian moons Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

Delayed once by NASA's decision to power it with a nuclear reactor being developed to power manned bases on the moon and Mars - it has been slowed again by a decision to move the reactor experiment to an earlier mission.

Overall, NASA's 2006 budget estimate shows steady growth through 2010 for space science programs related to robotic and human exploration of the solar system. But the money for astrophysics, for studies of the solar environment and climate change are flat.

"There has been a concrete and very specific decision that the top priority is solar system exploration and that anything that doesn't contribute to that gets lower priorities," says John Logsdon, a space historian at George Washington University.

Some liken what is emerging from the Bush administration to the centrally planned economies that ultimately fail to raise a nation's standard of living.

In a centrally planned world of space science, politicians decide astronauts should fly to the moon, NASA designs the hardware, the private sector builds it, and then someone asks scientists what kinds of experiments the crew should pack along.

"Apollo is the classic example," says Roger D. Launius, chairman of the space history division of the National Air and Space Museum. "Having made the decision to go to the moon, there was a lot of interesting and very good science that got done. The same may be happening in the context of the exploration initiative."

But that was a time of NASA budgets rich enough to send men to the moon while sending scientific missions off to Venus and Mars, and instruments out to peer at the heavens. There is worry that costs of exploration in today's fiscal environment will put the squeeze on space science. It has before.

"Once we decided to build the shuttle, then at least until the late 1980s all science had to be carried out or launched aboard the shuttle," Logsdon says. That forced scientists to conform their investigations to the shuttles' limitations and schedule.

"The most notorious of them is that the orbit the Hubble Space Telescope is not in the best orbit," he says. It circles the Earth every 90 minutes, in and out of sunlight with the Earth blocking half the sky. But "it's the orbit the shuttle could put it in and reach it to service it."

The space station

Space scientists grouse, too, about the International Space Station, which has never held much appeal as a science platform, and soaks up huge sums of money. With $23.5 billion in U.S. tax money spent, NASA says the station is a little more than 55 percent finished.

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