NASA, astronomers, and the establishment of research priorities
by Brian D. Dewhurst
|Since the introduction of the Vision for Space Exploration in 2004, it has been viewed with skepticism and considerable concern in the scientific community, including in those disciplines, such as astronomy, that are major NASA stakeholders.|
As the space station program limped along through the 1990s, robotic space science missions began to generate positive publicity for the agency. The Hubble observations of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 hitting Jupiter in 1994 and its spectacular images of distant galaxies and colorful nebulae, the successful arrival of the Galileo mission at Jupiter in 1995, and the successful landing of the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft on July 4, 1997, provided a string of major successes for the agency. These missions, coupled with the announcement by NASA researchers of potential Martian fossils in a meteorite in 1996, gained positive publicity for the agency at a time when the human spaceflight program was generating little excitement among the public. NASA leaders, realizing the value of these investigations, responded by increasing the budget for science. At the end of the first Bush Administration, science in the agency was struggling to maintain its hold on one fifth of the NASA budget; by the end of the Clinton Administration, science missions had grown to account for one third of the agency’s spending. More importantly, the public identified NASA as a science agency: even the space shuttle program was selling itself on the strength of its scientific and educational accomplishments.
During this period, NASA began to evolve from a mission agency to a science agency, a transformation that had a dramatic effect on the way NASA operated. Both science and mission agencies can support scientific research, but the way in which they do so is different. Mission agencies, such as the Office of Naval Research or the National Cancer Institute, support basic research that can be tied to the goal of that agency—a better sonar system or a new cancer drug, for instance. The National Science Foundation, on the other hand, supports science for its own sake. It is designed to be reactive to new discoveries or new avenues of research. In short, it is the scientific community that advises science agencies about the areas in which they should invest. As science climbed in importance at NASA, the agency leadership increasingly turned to the scientists for new projects to pursue.
In the wake of the Columbia accident, it was clear that NASA’s human space flight activities were in need of a new rationale. Critics charged, among other things, that robots could do better science with both fewer dollars and a negligible risk to human life. In response to the accident and the need for a reinvigorated mission, the Bush administration released its Vision for Space Exploration in January 2004. The first major presidential direction that had been given to the agency since the failure of the Space Exploration Initiative, the Vision and its sweeping set of goals became the focus of the agency. Accomplishing them would require NASA to change its culture and return to its mission-oriented roots.
This change from science priorities to mission priorities is profound because of the way that the scientific community sets priorities. The best example of this is astronomy. Because astronomers are largely dependent on government support for new observatories—a situation forced upon them primarily because of the high cost of many of their instruments—they have developed a sophisticated priority-setting system based on the scientific peer review process and the creativity of members of the community. The culmination of this process over the past forty years has been a series of survey reports on astronomy and astrophysics conducted by the National Academies.
|The decadal survey process is of considerable value to both the astronomy community and to the science agencies, in part because the survey process directly engages the community. By engaging such a large fraction of the nation’s astronomers, the survey process is able to credibly represent the consensus of the community as a whole.|
Conducted roughly every ten years, these “decadal surveys” summarize the current state of knowledge in the field and then look ahead and identify the most important scientific questions to be addressed and the tools needed to address them. From a policy perspective, the key feature of these reports is a prioritized list of ground- and space-based observatories requiring federal investment. The process by which the survey is conducted is designed to sift and funnel the various proposals for new observatories into a single prioritized list for the government to implement.
The decadal survey process is of considerable value to both the astronomy community and to the science agencies, in part because the survey process directly engages the community. For example, the decadal survey committee and panels that conducted the survey in 1999–2000 were comprised of 125 astronomers from around the nation, and dozens more participated through various information gathering sessions. By engaging such a large fraction of the nation’s astronomers, the survey process is able to credibly represent the consensus of the community as a whole. Debates between members of the community are held inside the survey process, and the members of the community choose the winners and losers. When agencies such as NASA and the National Science Foundation fund the missions included on the decadal survey priority list, they are confident that the taxpayers’ dollars are supporting the most valuable projects. Furthermore, the consensus nature of the reports can be used as a shield against lobbying on behalf of individual projects, saving agency officials and congressional staff from having to be the arbiters of scientific disputes—roles they may not be qualified to play. Historically, the large majority of projects recommended in the decadal surveys have been completed, without messy public debates such as those which accompanied the Superconducting Supercollider. The result is a win-win situation for the astronomers and the government: the government is confident that it is investing in the most valuable observatories, and the astronomers are confident that their desires are being heard and acted upon by the government. Perhaps the biggest testament to the value of the astronomy and astrophysics decadal surveys is that in the late 1990s, NASA requested that the National Academies conduct decadal surveys for the other scientific areas in NASA’s portfolio such as planetary exploration, solar and space physics, and earth sciences.
NASA’s request for additional decadal surveys shows how far the agency had swung towards the science agency culture. By requesting the surveys, NASA was asking the scientific communities to set the agency’s science priorities for the coming decade. When the Vision for Space Exploration was released with its own set of priorities for the agency, the competing priorities were set on a collision course. The former set of priorities was filtered from the bottom up, while the latter directed from the top down. The agency needs to find a way to reconcile the two sets of priorities in a decision-making process that keeps the best science while preparing it to complete its mission.
|By working through the political process, the astronomers had won a pyrrhic victory. The astronomy program is spending roughly $200 million per year on Hubble, a large fraction of which is spent merely keeping the agency ready to fly SM-4. That money might well be wasted if the agency is unable to fly before Hubble’s batteries fail—assuming the shuttle indeed returns safely to flight.|
Unfortunately, the first steps in defining a new relationship between the science priorities of the stakeholders and the needs of NASA as a reinvigorated mission agency have not gone smoothly. In an attempt to reassert the mission agency culture, NASA’s FY2005 budget request, released in February 2004, divided the agency’s science portfolio into “exploration science” and “other science” categories. The agency proposed that funding for science in the “other” category would remain essentially flat until 2020, while exploration would roughly double in size over the same period. In astronomy, the tilt was incredibly pronounced. NASA proposed in mid-2004 to accelerate the third-ranked space observatory in the decadal survey, the Terrestrial Planet Finder, and to double its proposed scope. To fund this acceleration and expansion, the second-ranked priority and a suite of other missions the agency had been planning were postponed indefinitely. This decision was based on NASA’s interpretation of the Vision for Space Exploration and its determination that the Terrestrial Planet Finder mission was exploration-oriented and the other missions were not. In short, NASA was asserting its mission priorities over the astronomers’ science priorities.
Had this change proven to be the sole reorientation involved in implementing the Vision, the astronomy community might have been persuaded to accept the new ground rules and work with the agency. Unfortunately, the budget decisions were announced in the wake of then-Administrator Sean O’Keefe’s decision to cancel Hubble Servicing Mission SM-4. The administrator made the decision without notifying or discussing it with the NASA Advisory Council and its scientific subcommittees—a marked change from past agency practice. The Hubble decision, combined with the reorientation of the program away from the community’s priorities, portrayed an agency that was no longer willing to work with the astronomy community.
The astronomers began to search for other avenues to make their voices heard. In short order they found that Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski was eager to help. The Space Telescope Science Institute and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the key institutions supporting Hubble, are both in Maryland. Furthermore, Senator Mikulski was the ranking member of the Senate subcommittee that controlled NASA’s appropriations, putting her in a powerful position to change Hubble’s fate. After months of wrangling it became clear that the senator was not going to allow NASA to eliminate the Hubble mission. By the next spring O’Keefe had resigned, and his successor, Michael Griffin, had publicly committed to “saving” Hubble if the space shuttle’s return to flight was successful.
By working through the political process, the astronomers had won a pyrrhic victory. NASA was committed to conducting SM-4 once the space shuttle had returned safely to flight, but more than a year later the shuttle is still grounded. The astronomy program is spending roughly $200 million per year on Hubble, a large fraction of which is spent merely keeping the agency ready to fly SM-4. That money might well be wasted if the agency is unable to fly before Hubble’s batteries fail—assuming the shuttle indeed returns safely to flight. Meanwhile, in this time of lean federal budgets, other NASA astronomy missions are being delayed or canceled. A conversation between NASA and the astronomy community about whether SM-4 is the best mission in which to invest could be beneficial to all involved, but because the astronomers sought a political solution such a conversation is very unlikely.
|NASA and the science community have come to depend on one another. The agency cannot return to an Apollo-like posture where the science priorities are driven almost entirely by the needs of the space flight program. On the other hand, the scientific community must realize that a healthy, vibrant exploration program is incomplete without a viable human spaceflight capability.|
Even if such a conversation were possible, it is unclear how such a conversation might take place. Administrator Griffin chose to disband NASA’s advisory committees until he could rework how they functioned. Historically, the advisory committees have been the venue in which the agency’s top-down priorities and the community’s bottom-up priorities have been brought together. NASA has reestablished the NASA Advisory Council, but without its previous scientific subcommittees are in place. Without these committees, it is unclear how or whether the scientific community is able to have input into NASA’s decision-making process when decisions need to be made on a short timescale.
Moving forward, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate needs to develop a mechanism to integrate the agency’s mission priorities with the community’s science priorities. NASA and the science community have come to depend on one another. The agency cannot return to an Apollo-like posture where the science priorities are driven almost entirely by the needs of the space flight program. On the other hand, the scientific community must realize that a healthy, vibrant exploration program is incomplete without a viable human spaceflight capability. By working together, NASA and the community should be able to maintain the remarkable success of the past decade while successfully implementing a new program of exploration.