Opening up Space Policy Debate

November 30th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In the early 1980s James Van Allen criticized NASA for taking money from space science in order to shore up spending on the space shuttle program, calling the expected budgetary carnage “the slaughter of the innocents.” Today we see a very similar dynamic going on in NASA with space science once again being threatened. In a report released earlier this month, the American Physical Society characterized the situation as follows, “Very important science opportunities could be lost or delayed seriously as a consequence of shifting NASA priorities toward Moon-Mars.”

The APS recommends that NASA submit it plans to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) for a review. Of course the APS recommends going to the NAS because the NAS is a very strong supporter of science and has been the source of priority-setting activities for all of space science.

In an editorial yesterday, The New York Times noted, “In most years, there has been a budgetary wall between the manned space program and unmanned scientific programs, thus providing some protection for science when the inevitable cost overruns hit the more costly manned flight programs. Now NASA will have great freedom to pillage its scientific accounts to pay for the shuttle or space station or the president’s Moon-Mars exploration program, or it can raid one manned program to help pay for another, all subject to final approval by Congress.” The New York Times also recommended that Congress consider terminating the Shuttle and the Space Station.

And the St. Petersburg Times writes in an editorial, “Americans may be mesmerized by the prospect of reaching new frontiers in space, but the nation has hardly had a debate about NASA’s mission and the associated costs… But before the agency takes what could be a fundamentally new direction, the administration, Congress and the scientific community need to weigh more thoroughly how the president’s plan would serve science and affect other domestic priorities.”

See also this editorial in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer.

Voices such as these suggest that it is time not just for a debate over goals of the nation’s space program but also the means for achieving those goals. NASA is but one of several agencies that has a space program, others include the Departments of Commerce and Defense. And NASA is but one of several agencies that supports earth and space science, others include the National Science Foundation and the Department of Commerce (NOAA). Perhaps it is time to reconsider how space programs in the government are organized. In particular, might there be reason to consider consolidating research for research sake in NSF, and research that is focused on improving government services in NOAA, and then focus NASA on human aeronautics and human space flight?

In the end it may well be decided that the current structure is the best or only one practical. However, space policy needs a healthy debate that engages a wide range of perspectives beyond the status quo. But this debate is only something that can occur with the participation and leadership of the President or Congress.

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