AAS #3: NASA Chief Mike Griffin

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Jan 8, 2008
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NASA Administrator Mike Griffin gave a talk giving an overview of NASA and astronomy today.

His theme was clear: NASA is doing well, but people -- especially astronomers -- have to understand that the budget is limited, and there is only so much to go around. To fund one thing, we have to cut another. This is a truth we must face.

He started off talking about Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer, and Swift. It was a little funny to hear about the astronomy NASA has done, since the audience was intimately familiar with it all, but it's nice to hear anyway... especially since he also gave an overview of what's to come in the next few years. Dark energy missions, observatories dedicated to look for planets around other stars, and more are on the horizon.

The Astrophysics budget in NASA is more than a billion per year, and has been for years. Griffin noted that amount is larger than the entire Japanese space budget. We astronomers are all too aware of how much money this is, of course, and how wonderful a position we have that our government funds it at this level. Astronomers have spent years working with the government on this, so it's a fantastic synergy.

Griffin was pretty clear on how important this work is, and how it inspires us, and especially our children. But of course it comes with a literal price. NASA has a fixed budget, and has other priorities as well. An instrument (an alpha magnetic spectrometer or AMS, for those keeping score at home) was designed to go on the space station, and promises were made to our international partners to build, launch, and install it. It would cost $400 million to put the AMS on the ISS. To pay for this, money must come from elsewhere, and Astrophysics is a pretty fat target.

SIM, the Space Interferometry Mission, will look for planets -- some potentially Earthlike -- around other stars. SIM has passed all its technological hurdles, and has been deemed ready to be built. However, NASA cannot support at the same time both SIM and other big missions like the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to Hubble. JWST eats up 60% of NASA's astrophysics budget (holy Haleakala!) so we need to be careful on not just what gets funded, but when.

Griffin has made it clear he thinks we need to hold off on SIM while other missions are developed, but Congress has mandated work start on SIM. This doesn't happen in a vacuum, Griffin said; he basically accused astronomers of advocating SIM to Congress, a mission that will now threaten other missions. He's quite possibly right; astronomers get a lot, but we want a lot more, too. Still, I suspect that when astronomers advocate to Congress for a mission, it's in the hopes that Congress will actually increase the budget enough to accommodate it. That would be a naive attitude. If they do this knowing full well it will impact other missions, well then, that's politically naive to the point of self-mutilation. I'd be curious to hear more about this story, and find out what is actually going on.

Griffin continued his somewhat exasperated talk; saying that manned missions took a serious hit after Columbia, and saying in a somewhat sideways manner that perhaps many astronomers don't care. He has a point again; many scientists are actively against manned flight, seeing it as a waste of money when robotic explorers can do so much. Mind you, this is true in some cases (like basic scientific exploration of Mars and the Moon, for example), but it is naive, of course. Manned spaceflight will always be inspirational, especially to young children, and I think it has its place. The problem is that manned flight costs so much more than unmanned, and it would be nice if Congress could figure out how to balance the two in NASA's budget.

He pointed out the space station is a big part of NASA's mission, and that must be recognized. To ignore it while discussing NASA is futile. Again, he's right: many astronomers -- myself included -- think the ISS is a waste of money. However, we must face the truth that the ISS is a fact of life for NASA, and must be funded and completed. It will do no good to complain that he money is being thrown away... at least, it's useless to complain now. It's too late for that. However, there will be future missions, and I think we need to examine these missions very critically to make sure they don't turn into more space station-like missions, white elephants eating up hundreds of billions of dollars for no focused value.

He ended by pointing out that we must all hang together or we will surely all hang separately. What he is trying to tell us is that NASA will do what it can for science, and for astrophysics, but it will only be able to do what it can. This is good advice, for both astronomers and NASA officials. We must all take a broader view.

However...

My own personal opinion: one of the things I like about Griffin is his forthrightness. He says what's on his mind, and that's refreshing. I agree with him on many points, and disagree on many others. It may hurt to hear the truth, but I try very hard not to let that stop me from hearing it. In many ways, then, I was happy to hear Griffin's talk, although I must admit that his exasperation does seem a little peevish as opposed to being constructive. Having said that, I wouldn't take his job on a bet (or even for a good fraction of NASA's budget). He must have people advocating a dozen such divisions other than Astrophysics, and we are but one of the cacophony of voices he hears. Still, when speaking to a crowd of advocates, implying, or even outright saying, they are being childish on some topics won't help... even if he's right.

There's politics in government, of course, but anytime you get a group with more than three people in it, there are politics there as well. I hope that the politics I saw here today don't interfere with the greater good of both science and NASA.