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Scientists Favor Small Missions Over Costly NASA Flagships

A panel ofexperts who help set NASA's science priorities told the House Science Committeethey would be willing to scale back or delay big, expensive flagship missionsincluding the James Webb Space Telescope in order to put more funding intoresearch and analysis, and small and medium missions promising higher flightrates.

Scientistsare in an uproar over NASA's decision to significantly cut back on the growthin science spending to fund among other things the space shuttle's return toflight, completion of the international space station and cost overruns on theJames Webb Space Telescope.

WhileNASA's $16.792 billion budget request for 2007 includes $5.3 billion forconducting science, a 1.5-percent increase, the science community previouslyhad been told the NASA science budget would rise at a rate 8 percent to 9percent annually through the end of the decade. They also were promised by NASAAdministrator Michael Griffin last year that science funding would not bediverted to pay shuttle or space station bills.

Thefive-year NASA budget plan that accompanied the agency's 2007 budget requestprovides $3.1 billion less for science through 2010 than previously promised.Grant funding for research scientists, facing reductions in 2006, would be cutanother 15 percent to 20 percent next year. The size of the cut would vary fromdiscipline to discipline.

Griffin has said the change of plans wasunavoidable given the twin priorities of completing the space station andbuilding a space shuttle replacement capable of carrying astronauts to theMoon. Griffin reiterated that point during a March 2 press conference at Kennedy Space Center, where he was meeting with his international counterparts to approve anew 16-flight space station assembly plan.

"Obviouslywe would like to be able to do more rather than less, and we think the scienceprogram has had a tremendous history of returning great results," Griffin said. "But we are in a period in history, following the loss and the recoveryfrom the Columbia accident, where the human spaceflight program, to which weare also committed, needs help."

Earlierthat same day in Washington at the House Science Committee's second NASAhearing in as many weeks, the space agency's budget priorities came in for asound drubbing from a panel of influential scientists.

Nobellaureate Joseph K. Taylor, co-chairman of the National Research Council'sDecadal Survey for Astronomy and Astrophysics, said NASA's budget ax is fallingthe heaviest on small, competitively selected missions and grants that pay forscientists to utilize the data streaming back from spacecraft already in service.

HouseScience Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) said he and some of hiscolleagues would be fighting to increase NASA's science budget for 2007, butvictory was far from assured. Boehlert asked the panel of scientists whattrade-offs they would be willing to make to add money to NASA's research andanalysis accounts in the absence of new additional funding.

"Yesor no, would you be willing to move money out of your flagship program to putmore money into research and analysis?" Boehlert asked. "That's thekind of choices we face."

Taylor said he would favor revisiting thepriority assigned to two of NASA's flagship astronomy missions, the James Webband Hubble Space telescopes.

"If nonew resources can be added, we're in a tough situation and reassessment needsto be made about the levels of funding that are going into two things basicallynow: both the Hubble Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope," Taylorsaid. "Those have so weakened the other parts of the program that seem to meto be so essential to the future health of this scientific area that if nothingcan be done about those costs, one needs to reassess whether the programsshould be continued the way they are going now."

WesleyHuntress, a former NASA associate administrator for space science and a memberof the National Research Council's Decadal Survey for Solar System Exploration,said flagship missions should take a back seat to smaller, less-costly effortsin "very hard budget times."

"Consistentwith the decadal survey, the priorities in the program under stress are first,research program; second, technology program; third, small missions; fourth,medium missions; and last, flagship missions," Huntress said.

Huntressdid not offer up a flagship mission he would scale back or delay because NASA'ssolar system exploration vision does not currently have one in development.Although NASA was urged by Congress last year to request funding for a Europaorbiter mission, the agency's 2007 request would not fund a new start.

Huntresssaid he could support NASA's decision, as long as the agency does not giveshort shrift to technology development programs aimed at enabling futuremissions.

"If weare ever to recover from loss of a flagship, we have to invest in our technologicalreadiness," he said. "And so delay in the Europa mission, if that'swhat it comes to, I believe is the right thing to do but not at the expense ofinvesting in the technologies that will ultimately allow you to do such amission."

BerrienMoore, University of New Hampshire professor who is co-chairing the NationalResearch Council's Decadal Survey for Earth Sciences, told lawmakers that theEarth science community's big, flagship mission already has been delayedtwo-and-a-half years under NASA's 2007 budget plan. But if something more hadto give to free up funding for research and analysis, Moore said, he wouldfavor revisiting the requirements for the Landsat Data Continuity Mission tosee if there might be "a cheaper way" of accomplishing the mission.

NASAintends to release a solicitation this summer for a free-flying Landsatspacecraft that government and industry officials said is expected to cost onthe order of $400 million.

MaryCleave, NASA associate administrator for science, told lawmakers that while shethinks the agency has put forward a well-balanced science spending plan, theagency is open to further advice.

"Wedid take our best shot at putting this budget together," Cleave said."It was difficult but it may not be the best shot we could get witheverybody's help."

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Brian Berger is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews, a bi-weekly space industry news magazine, and He joined SpaceNews covering NASA in 1998 and was named Senior Staff Writer in 2004 before becoming Deputy Editor in 2008. Brian's reporting on NASA's 2003 Columbia space shuttle accident and received the Communications Award from the National Space Club Huntsville Chapter in 2019. Brian received a bachelor's degree in magazine production and editing from Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.