National Acadamies of Science to Congress: loosen the purse strings

Contributed by
Jun 13, 2006

Note: don't forget to check out my appearances on radio and TV today! Now back to our regularly scheduled blog.

Lots of NASA news, I know, and I'll try to make this my last post about it for a while. But with Congress mulling over what to do with the Agency right now, even as I write this, a lot of decisions are being made that will profoundly affect space exploration by the US for the next few decades.

With all the goofiness going on, there is one bright spot: the very prestigious National Academy of Sciences just released their Executive Summary on advice to Congress about NASA. Their conclusion: loosen the purse strings. They make this very clear; their first conclusive statement in the summary is

NASA is being asked to accomplish too much with too little.

I agree; I've been saying that since I learned that the White House wanted NASA to go back to the Moon, but wasn't giving NASA any more money.

It goes on like that. However, among their findings is this:

The major missions in space and Earth science are being executed at costs well in excess of the costs estimated at the time when the missions were recommended in the National Research Council’s decadal surveys for their disciplines. Consequently, the orderly planning process has served the space and Earth science communities well has been disrupted, and balance among large, medium, and small missions has been difficult to maintain.

In other words, missions costs are underestimated when first proposed. As Michael Griffin, NASA Administrator, put it: missions don't go overbudget, they are initially under-costed.

Every ten years, a survey is taken by scientists to determine what direction NASA should go for basic scientific research. This decadal survey is then submitted to Congress, which tends to lean heavily on it when deciding how to fund NASA science. So Congress says for example, yes, we like the idea of a probe to study dark energy. NASA gets money to do it. They put out a call to scientists, saying there is so much money to build such a probe. Scientists gather into teams and put together competing proposals, including the cost. NASA then chooses which one to build. This description is somewhat (okay, vastly) over-simplified, but it's good enough to make my point.

If the team underestimates their budget, this causes problems. It might mean money is taken from another project. Take, for a recent (but not necessarily atypical) example, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). It's running way over-budget. It really was undercosted: it was proposed to cost $800 million, but its cost has doubled (as a reminder, Hubble washugely overbudget, yet nobody ever hears about that anymore. I find that very interesting; it cost a lot more than JWST ever will).

Sometimes technology doesn't advance as quickly as predicted, sometimes things are just harder to build than anticipated. However it happened, we now have a much more expensive project in times of a very tight budget. Griffin has made it clear that JWST is a priority, but he's also made it clear to astronomers that we can pick whether to have JWST or some other projects we want. We can't have both.

Unless, again, Congress loosens things up somewhat. They need to increase NASA's budget, and they need to back way off on earmarks. And, for its part, NASA needs to ride projects much better about money being spent (I'll note that money for education and public outreach -- which is where I am funded from for my day job-- only totals about 1% of any given mission's budget).

Were these things to happen, NASA will have the freedom it needs -- and, hopefully, can handle -- to spur American pride as it did in the late 1960s, when the whole world looked to America as a symbol of progress toward the future.

Wouldn't that be a nice thing to have happen again?

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