Man in a Can

July 28th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

From Reuters:

NASA is considering shutting down all the research programs it conducts aboard the international space station for at least a year to fill a projected budget shortfall of up to $100 million, a top station manager said today.

Research, even space station research, has always been secondary to NASA’s long-term vision of somehow someway getting a human on Mars:

Rather than researching materials, fluid physics and other basic microgravity phenomena, NASA decided to fund only those programs that had a direct bearing on human spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit, which is where the space station and the space shuttles fly. Funding for radiation studies, for example, was to be a key part of the U.S. station research program.

“Cutting science programs would suggest that it is merely a joy ride to the moon,” said Katie Boyd, spokeswoman for Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby. “It would mean that we as a national have wasted billions of taxpayer dollars.”

The New York Times in an editorial today on NASA’s changing mission statement sees part of the story, but fails top recognize that NASA’s preference for human spaceflight over science dates back decades. The Times choses instead to pin the source of NASA’s focus on human spaceflight on the current Administration, which I think misses the mark. It is to be found instead in the agency’s culture and long-term history across different presidents and political eras.

At a time when global warming has become an overriding issue, NASA has been delaying or canceling programs that could shed light on how the climate changes. The shortsighted cutbacks appear to result from sharply limiting NASA’s budget while giving it hugely expensive tasks like repairing the stricken shuttle fleet, finishing construction of the space station, and preparing to explore the Moon and Mars. Something had to give, and NASA’s choices included research into how the planet’s climate is responding to greenhouse gas emissions. . .

The problems in earth sciences are part of a broader slowdown in science missions as NASA tries to do too much with too little. NASA officials sometimes say that they are slowing the rate of growth in science budgets. But Congressional analysts say the agency cut its science spending in 2006 to cover unexpectedly expensive shuttle repairs. It now plans small increases that won’t keep up with inflation or bring spending back to previous levels for many years. One analyst likened NASA to a mugger who takes $100 from a victim and then returns $20 a year, telling the recipient to be thankful.

A Senate committee has approved $1 billion in emergency funds to reimburse programs that were cut to pay for the shuttle repairs. If that doesn’t fly, count home-planet studies and other science programs as a casualty of the administration’s insistence on completing the space station.

Maybe it is time to talk about breaking up NASA and its various missions.

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