Academy of Sciences Bemoans NASA Budget Limits
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
NASA may be trying to do too much with too little money. That's the bottom line of a new report from the National Academy of Sciences, a prestigious group of scientists that serves as an independent adviser for the government. The report says that NASA's new budget could hurt the future of space science by cutting spending on small programs to pay for big ticket items. NPR's Nell Boyce reports.
NELL BOYCE reporting:
Fiona Harrison is an astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology. For most of her career, she's been working on a space telescope that could find massive black holes hidden deep inside galaxies. The project is called New Star(ph), and everything was right on track to launch the telescope in 2009. Then, in February, NASA released its proposed budget.
Professor FIONA HARRISON (California Institute of Technology): And somebody called me on my phone and said, Hey, I just heard the press briefing that said New Star was discontinued. Do you know anything about that? And I said, No, nothing.
BOYCE: The next day, NASA headquarters faxed her a letter. After years of work by several dozen people, New Star had gotten the axe.
Professor HARRISON: I think we were all really in shock. I think it was just the sense of this can't actually have happened. There must be a mistake. But apparently not.
BOYCE: At $132 million, New Star was not a huge mission by NASA standards. The agency's budget is nearly $17 billion. But in a tight budget year, NASA administrator Michael Griffin said he needed to shift $3 billion from science programs to other projects, like finishing the space station. When he released his proposed budget in February, Griffin said NASA was still giving a lot of money to space science, although he did express regret about the shift.
Mr. MICHAEL GRIFFIN (Administrator, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA): I wish we hadn't had to do it. I didn't want to, but that's what we needed to do.
BOYCE: The new report from the National Academy of Sciences says New Star is just one of many small and medium-sized science projects that will suffer under Griffin's proposed plans. And Len Fisk says that's a problem. He's a space scientist at the University of Michigan. He chaired the panel that put out the academy report which was requested by Congress. Fisk says it's NASA's small missions and research projects that are the ones that train young scientists and generate new technologies and theories.
Professor LENNARD FISK (Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences, University of Michigan): If you cut that off or disrupt it, disrupt the pipeline, in effect, you disrupt your future.
BOYCE: Some scientists say they understand NASA's budget constraints, but they still think the agency could have made better choices when deciding what to cut. Jacqueline Hewitt runs a center at MIT that could lose a third of its funding. She also helped write the new report.
Professor JACQUELINE HEWITT (Kavli Center for Astrophysics and Space Research, MIT): I think scientists are willing to accept that, you know, their budgets can't always be growing at five, six percent, which is what the recent history has been. But it's the form that the cutbacks have taken.
BOYCE: The report doesn't single out any programs that should be cut instead. But it does say that because many of the endangered science programs are small, Congress could revise them at a minimal cost, just a couple of percent more than what NASA has asked for. Congress won't finalize the budget for months, and a NASA spokesperson says the agency hasn't had time to review the report's recommendations.
In the meantime, Fiona Harrison isn't optimistic that her telescope will get reinstated. She's had to find new jobs for everyone in her lab. Some are working on homeland security. She doesn't know what she'll do next.
Professor HARRISON: If there's no opportunities, and you don't see a future, then I'd rather go off and do something else productive.
BOYCE: And although it makes her sad, she says, that something else may not be space science.
Nell Boyce, NPR News.
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