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A Snapshot of NASA’s Science Plans

Article written: 8 Jan , 2008
Updated: 26 Dec , 2015
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As you’re probably aware, NASA has a lot of robotic explorers out there in space, and even more the works here on Earth. I was actually surprised to learn that they have 53 mission already in operation, and another 41 missions in development. But with the human exploration of the Moon charging forward, the robotic exploration missions are taking a bit of a hit. NASA administrator, Mike Griffin dropped the bad news in a press conference at the American Astronomical Society today. And then Associate Administrator Alan Stern picked up the pieces in a followup town hall meeting, explaining to scientists how they plan to move forward from here.

I won’t go too deeply into Mike Griffin’s presentation. Phil and Pamela captured the essence of the presentation quite nicely. Griffin hit us with the bad news about the deep cuts coming, and begged the community to try and stick together during these tough times.

After Griffin’s presentation, NASA Associate Administrator Alan Stern presented the state of robotic exploration and how the budget cuts will play out.

In opening up his presentation, Stern admitted that the Science Mission Directorate exploration program had suffered many setbacks, most of them self-inflicted through cost overruns. Over the last 5 years, the overruns have amounted to $5.7 billion. If these projects hadn’t gone over budget, the recent budget cuts might not have been necessary at all.

Stern emphasized his focus on holding project managers accountable for their budgets. Speaking to the research scientists in attendance at the town hall meeting, Stern said, “we’re going to get the project managers to toe the line and deliver projects on time and on budget so that we don’t mortgage your future.”

Of course, it’s unrealistic to think that there won’t be cost overruns. Overbudget and project management just go hand-in-hand.

The bulk of Stern’s presentation focused on how they would recover from the budget cuts. How they plan to rearrange the schedule to keep the spacecraft launching. This will be especially difficult with the James Webb Next Generation Telescope the lion’s share of the Science Mission Directorate’s budget.

Since April, though, they were able to get 5 new missions in the pipeline. And in one dramatic slide, Stern showed how the future mission pipeline has been improved. Many missions have been brought forward to launch several years ahead of schedule. Many mission will be launching this year, and the future launch schedule looks pretty decent too.

In responding to questions from the audience, Stern said that they have to deal with the current situation, and can’t hope for budget increases from Congress, “hope is not a strategy. We can hope that the Science Mission Directorate’s budget will be increased, but that’s not a strategy.”

Perhaps one of the most significant cuts in the last few years is the cancelation of the Terrestrial Planet Finder. This future mission would have had the power to observe atmospheres on Earth-sized planets orbiting other stars. Seeing ozone in the atmosphere of a distant planet would be a strong indication that there’s life there.

Although TPF has been scrapped, Stern said that the Science Mission Directorate is still committed to the search for exoplanets. One of these missions, the SIM Planet Finder has been mandated for completion by congress. With all the recent budget cuts, the money to work on SIM has to come from somewhere. And that somewhere is going to be other science missions.

Original Source: SMD Homepage


6 Responses

  1. Matt Blackman says

    As important as the search for exoplanets may be, I can’t say that I’m terribly surprised to see such projects on the chopping block. It does make more sense to focus limited resources on the study of “local” space, doesn’t it?

  2. Jason Leary says

    The detection of atmospheric conditions ripe for life on other planets is edifying to the civilization and thus should be continued .

  3. Kevin M. says

    Finding other habitable planets is the cutting edge of our true interest in space, and always will be, especially if it can be done with one or a few well-designed local instruments. Closer science is perhaps more practical, but will never approach the interest level of what or who else is “out there”, especially if our local bodies are all lifeless.

    Also, finding exoplanets has now become easy and affordable science, not punishingly expensive. Our cutting edge should always be where we can get the most bang for our buck. Finding exoplanets will revolutionize our vision of ourselves and the universe around us. Would you rather be studying the lifeless minerals on frozen planets for the forseeable future or exploring a multitude of new habitable biospheres? Exoplanets are the new low-hanging fruit, and ripe for the picking.

  4. Kevin M. says

    What interest we have in the moon is very limited, unless we are worried that others will build military bases there, not too likely for a few centuries yet. The only other use could be an astronomy station, but that could be done better from orbit. Likewise, we do not need humans to go to Mars before it is safe and economical to do so. And it is the overly-ambitious moon missions which are far more likely to go massively over budget, and produce far less meaningful results, mark my words on that.

    Hopefully a smart future president will see the purely political nature of the moon missions and slash them to ribbons, in favor of far more economical and profitable science missions. VSE should never have been proposed or taken seriously. Like everything else this administration has done, it is based on delusion and propaganda, and our dysfunctional congress has rubber stamped it.

  5. alfonso padilla says

    I disagree about the moon thing. I think its a good idea to go back to the moon for a purely astronomical reason. It would be great to build a liquid mirror telescope on the dark side of the moon. I read an article several months ago advocating for a 100m liquid telescope.

    I agree with Kevin that most of the moon missions are pointless and its taking away funds for better science missions like the SIM and the Terrestial Planet Finder that was cancelled. I also think its far flung and ahead of ourselves to send people to Mars just yet.

    Maybe it would be a better idea to learn to build a moon base and be out in zero G for long periods of time, closer to home, on the moon.

  6. Sakib says

    It’s no biggie that the Terrestial Planet Finder is cancelled. Even if we found habitable planets, it would be probably half a millenium until humanity would have the capability to travel there.
    Also is anyone excited about seeing the very first pictures of Pluto?

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