NASA Underfunded, Panel Reports

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 5, 2006

NASA's ambitions are outstripping its pocketbook, and its efforts to fly the space shuttle, finish building the space station and develop a next-generation spaceship simultaneously are crippling the nation's showcase space science missions, a report by the National Research Council said yesterday.

The report urged Congress and the White House to "seriously examine the mismatch between the tasks assigned to NASA and the resources that the agency has been provided to accomplish them."

Study Chairman Lennard A. Fisk, a University of Michigan space scientist and former NASA associate administrator, said lower-than-anticipated science funding, especially for smaller missions and research, could cause many NASA scientists to leave the agency and discourage new talent from joining up.

"The small missions of NASA have been the bedrock for advances in science and the pipeline for developing human capital and technology," Fisk said in a telephone interview.

"When you make those cuts, you disrupt the pipeline."

The council, an expert advisory panel of the independent National Academy of Sciences, conducted the study, titled "An Assessment of Balance in NASA's Science Programs," at the behest of Congress.

The report added a new voice to the ongoing debate over NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin's decision to curtail the growth of space science and life science spending by $4 billion between 2007 and 2011 to fund a space shuttle budget shortfall of as much as $6 billion.

"The plain fact is that NASA simply cannot afford to do everything that our many constituencies would like the agency to do," Griffin told Congress in February.

Griffin and other NASA officials met at the University of Maryland over the last two days to discuss science mission funding and priorities with scientists advising the agency. Griffin spokesman Dean Acosta said NASA had received the National Research Council report, and "we look forward to reviewing it."

The dispute over science funding is an outgrowth of President Bush's 2004 "Vision for Space Exploration," which calls for completing the international space station by 2010, returning astronauts to the moon by 2020 and sending a subsequent manned mission to Mars.

Despite modest budget increases for NASA in the past two years, efforts to realize the vision have been hamstrung by the shuttle's inability to sustain a full schedule of flights after the Columbia disaster in 2003.

Griffin acknowledged this in the 2007 budget. He said priorities would be the shuttle and space station and the development of a next-generation spaceship for the moon and Mars missions.

To pay for the shift in emphasis, NASA proposes to cut or curtail science missions and research programs -- the sources of successes such as the Mars rovers and the Cassini mission to Saturn.

"NASA has in many ways done an admirable job spreading the pain," Fisk said of the cuts, but said that "1 percent budget increases" could restore both the inexpensive, quick-preparation missions that yield disproportionately large scientific results, and research programs that train and employ large numbers of scientists.

"We have a long-term interest in ensuring that we have what we need in the future," Fisk said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company