NASA Must Continue Multimission Approach

Posted May 6, 2005 at 2:07pm

Our desire to explore space, to go beyond this world, is rooted firmly in a human desire that has existed since the first human stared into the night sky. It is a desire that has been passed down through human history and has found deep roots in America. We are a land where pioneers stood on the frontier looking and going beyond what is known. Our space program has a proud tradition of accomplishments. When challenged by President John F. Kennedy to put a man on the moon before the decade’s end, America could not even put a man into earth’s orbit, but we answered the call. We’ve stood on the Moon and have begun to unlock many of the secrets of Mars.

With our accomplishments, we’ve also experienced tragedy. The brave men and women who gave their lives in pursuit of knowledge are a constant reminder that no matter how hard we try to ensure safety, exploration always comes with a risk. As a nation, we should not shirk from these risks, just as our forbearers did not. We should use them as a guidepost to remind ourselves of the challenges and difficulties of exploring space.

When NASA was established in the 1958 Space Act, it was defined as an agency with multiple missions: aeronautics, space and Earth science, space flight and others. While there has been debate over the merits of specific projects, there has been a general Congressional, and public, consensus in support of this multimission approach to the civil space program.

Unfortunately, this productive approach to how NASA operated has been undermined by the agency itself. NASA’s implementation of President Bush’s Mars initiative has resulted in a significant reprioritization of NASA’s activities by its management. In short, all NASA efforts other than the Mars effort are being stripped to the bone. The effects of that reprioritization are seen in the fiscal 2006 NASA budget request. About 75 percent of the reduction in NASA’s planned funding level for the years fiscal ’06 through fiscal ’09 is to be absorbed by NASA’s science and aeronautics programs, with only 10 percent of the total being charged against NASA’s exploration systems programs. The Earth science program’s five-year funding profile has again been reduced relative to the five-year plan contained in the fiscal ’05 budget request (which in turn was lower than the five-year funding profile in the fiscal ’04 budget request for Earth science). The funding for aeronautics would be almost 30 percent lower by fiscal 2007 than it was in fiscal 2003, with no improvement in the remainder of the five-year plan through fiscal 2010. The decrease in purchasing power (factoring in the effects of inflation) would be even greater.

In addition, the fiscal 2006 budget proposal eliminated any funding for a Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission, as well as any funding to continue hypersonics work. The elimination of funding will result in the demise of the Hubble over the next few years. A distinguished committee of the National Academies, with several Nobel laureates on its roster, has lauded Hubble, saying, “Astronomical discoveries with Hubble from the solar system to the edge of the universe are among the most significant intellectual achievements of the space science program.” The hypersonics funding cut is a bit ironic given that NASA has not been shy about highlighting the accomplishments of the X-43 hypersonics program. NASA personnel indicated to staff at the Science Committee space shuttle program review that the shuttle program had to reduce its operations reserves by $269 million in fiscal 2006 and $262 million in fiscal 2007 to support the requirements of the space exploration vision. The shuttle program has not yet identified the means by which it will be able to achieve the reductions.

At present, NASA is working toward a resumption of space shuttle flights, with a return to flight currently scheduled for mid-June. However, once NASA returns the shuttle to flight status, it is then supposed to begin the task of figuring out how to retire the space shuttle fleet in 2010 while continuing to fly the shuttle safely up to the very last flight. The 2010 date for terminating the shuttle program is contained in the president’s space exploration initiative vision statement and is intended to coincide with the completion of International Space Station assembly (the pieces of the space station are delivered to orbit by the space shuttle). Retirement of the shuttle in 2010 and the potential end of U.S. participation in the International Space Station program in 2016 are supposed to free up additional funds that would be used to support the president’s space exploration initiative. Pressure to retire the shuttle by a fixed date to free up resources for other activities, coupled with the need to fly up to 28 shuttle flights to assemble the station, could, if not handled properly, lead to the types of schedule and budgetary pressures that were cited by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board as contributing to the Columbia accident.

In order for NASA to fulfill its mission it needs to be able to have a definable plan as to how it intends to accomplish it. A plan of that would have a balanced approach to ensure that one portion of NASA is not cannibalized to fund another.

The budget practicalities of this issue can not be ignored. Neither can the impact it would have on our dreams. Our ability to go beyond not just this planet and solar system but beyond human knowledge is essential for us as a society. We must be able to continue in our quest.

With the arrival of Michael Griffin, the new NASA administrator, I am hopeful that we can begin to have this dialogue. The importance of NASA’s mission to our nation cannot be overestimated. NASA has taken our dreams and made them real. I am optimistic that they will be able to continue to do so in the future.

Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) is a member of the House Science subcommittee on space.