President Bush's ambitious strategy for space exploration is forcing wrenching changes at NASA, putting thousands of jobs at risk, threatening closure of facilities across the country and sharply altering the way the agency does business.
Last week, NASA Associate Administrator James L. Jennings warned that the agency could lose as many as 2,680 jobs -- 15.3 percent of its 17,475-member full-time workforce -- in the next 18 months. "You have to streamline the organization and size it to the mission you're carrying out," he said. "It's essential to carry out the exploration mission."
The early target is NASA's aeronautics division, which studies such things as airport noise, pilot fatigue and experimental aircraft design. Aeronautics experts from NASA or its precursors have developed innovations including the X-15 "rocket plane" of the 1950s and 1960s, de-icing systems, and the rounded-bottom "supercritical wing" used today by virtually every commercial jetliner to increase speed, improve range and save fuel.
Under the reorganization, the three NASA centers with focuses on aeronautics -- including Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. -- could lose at least 1,800 jobs. At least 14 facilities at the same centers could close, among them 10 wind tunnels, a joint U.S.-Japan artificial-gravity project for the international space station and the lab that developed the X-43 "scramjet" that reached 7,000 mph to set the aircraft speed record last year.
Bush announced his "Vision for Space Exploration" in January 2004, reorienting U.S. space policy toward human spaceflight, a return to the moon by 2020 and eventual travel to Mars.
In the absence of a permanent NASA administrator since Sean O'Keefe's departure last month, the task of reorganizing the agency to conform to the president's priorities is being led by Associate Administrator Craig E. Steidle, a retired Navy rear admiral who runs the powerful Office of Exploration Systems.
Last week, Bush nominated Johns Hopkins University physicist-engineer Michael D. Griffin to be the new administrator, but the Senate must now confirm the appointment, a process that will not begin until April at the earliest.
He will find a Congress that has neither debated nor voted on the moon-and-Mars initiative and has regarded it with unease since its introduction. The House Science Committee plans a hearing on aeronautics today. "We hear it's called restructuring," the committee chairman, Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.), said in an interview. "The overall concern that I have is that, more and more, there are those who are trying to make NASA a single-mission agency, and that is not acceptable to people like me and others in the Congress."
Since Bush laid out his ambitious vision, lawmakers, scientists and other space watchers have worried that by shifting its focus NASA might end up crippling some of the core activities that have defined the agency for four decades.
Besides human spaceflight and space science -- studying the solar system with the Mars rovers and other missions -- NASA has world-renowned programs in aeronautics, astronomy, astrophysics, astrobiology and Earth science, which studies the Earth from space.
Concern arose early last year with the agency's refusal to mount a servicing mission to the popular Hubble telescope. NASA said the mission was too risky, but critics said the agency canceled it because of its expense and its irrelevance to the moon-Mars initiative. Hubble's fate is still undecided.
The introduction of NASA's $16.4 billion 2006 budget last month has accelerated and deepened this disquiet. Although the agency got a slight budget increase over 2005, $426 million in lawmakers' special projects ate up much of the gain, and the White House has indicated that funding will hold steady in coming years.
"The president's vision says basically that the focus will be on exploration -- both human and robotic," said John M. Logsdon, head of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. "In order to do that, you're going to have to stop doing some other things, and that means some hard choices."
It is unclear who is making the choices, but Jennings and other officials invoked the Office of Exploration Systems as the arbiter of whether projects and programs conform to the moon-Mars initiative. Inquiries about possible program cuts are frequently referred to Steidle's office.