Followup to Congressional NASA hearings and my thoughts

By Phil Plait | March 2, 2006 11:29 am

Update: CNN has posted an article about this, with the headline — get this — Astronauts blast science budget cuts (emphasis mine). At least they didn’t say "Astrologers". Sigh.

The Congressional hearing about NASA cuts to space science ended a few minutes ago. It can be hard to say exactly how things have gone in such an event; there is so much spin and politicking. But I am guardedly optimistic, in that the first step to solving a problem is recognizing it, and the problem is definitely recognized!

It’s clear that Congress and scientists are extremely concerned about what the NASA science cuts will do to the future of scientific research at NASA. Both were very frank about how NASA science is in real danger of becoming extinct.

Note: in this blog entry, the quotations are as close as I could get them since I was typing as quickly as I could while listening. So they may not be word-for-word, but they should be close.

The opening comments were very interesting. Congressman Gordon said "I’m afraid science has become an afterthought in NASA’s exploration initiative," and Congressman Udall said "We’re not off to a good start when billions are cut from science research; I believe these cuts are ill-advised. NASA’s science efforts are intellectual seed corn, and the NASA budget puts that seed corn at risk, and that’s a mistake."

They also praised the four testifying members of the National Academy of Sciences for what they said about their concern as well. The NAS scientists were quite up front about how devastating the NASA cuts are. They stressed how smaller programs are being destroyed in favor of much larger missions, and how this is hurting the younger researchers who will go on to do bigger and better science. This latter was a theme I have talked about in this blog before, and was discussed many times in the hearing. I’m glad that was aired out, as it’s a key point here… and I’ll get back to it in a moment.

Mary Cleave, NASA’s Associate Administrator for science, did say some encouraging things. When the Chair asked her if she would heed the advice of the council about the cuts to smaller programs, she said they will "revisit" these issues. However, I’ll note that I have heard such talk before. Cleave may very well think about it, but honestly it’s hard to say if that will make a difference; she and other NASA administrators have already known for some time about how scientists feel about these cuts. Boehlert responded to her: "We are deeply concerned by the presentation as we see it now." I think the majority of the scientific community would agree.

More troubling to me is how Cleave gave her introductory speech; everyone is given five minutes to introduce their thoughts. The Congressmen specifically asked her to address how the cuts will affect NASA science. Instead, however, she spent the majority of her five minutes talking about the science NASA has successfully started or will be doing over the next two years *. The Chair interrupted her and asked her to address the cuts to Research and Analysis. She agreed, and then said very nonspecific things for a few more seconds until her time ran out. The fact that she did not address the actual budget cuts in her prepared speech is interesting, since this was in fact what this entire House session was about.

Fran Bagenal, an NAS scientist, specifically addressed Cleave’s list of NASA successful missions, saying that this sounds good for the next two years, but after that, when the current budget hits hardest, there will be very few missions launched (I think she said just one). In other words, Cleave’s list of NASA successes has little pertinence to the current crisis, implying strongly that this was just spin on Cleave’s part.

One of my biggest concerns going into this was that people are ignoring the elephant in the living room, so to speak: NASA is cutting money from small programs, but hemorrhaging money into the Shuttle and Space Station (I’ll note that Congressman Gordon used this exact phrase about an elephant in one of his statements). They were also saying that going back to the Moon is a good idea (NAS scientist Joe Taylor took exception to that, though), but that it is hugely underfunded, and that is killing NASA, specifically science at NASA.

This was finally discussed late in the meeting. Wes Huntress of the NAS did say about the new Vision for Exploration, "The President offered a budget to support it, but NASA administration cut it. " I think that’s pretty succinct. Huntress, as expected, hammered NASA.

Congressman Boehlert asked the NAS panel members if they would be willing to cut money from their own flagship missions to support smaller ones. They all said yes, but I think this was the wrong question. The right question is "what can be done to fund these missions, and, barring a new influx of money, what other things can be cut to maintain a good balance of science and exploration?" That would put the Shuttle and Station on the table, as they should be. I’ll note that Congressman Calvert said "We need to raise the top line," meaning in reality NASA simply needs more money to fund what it needs to do. Others reiterated this feeling, so that was very gratifying to hear.

The other concern of mine is how these "temporary" delays will actually do far more damage than advertised because a two year delay is an eternity in the life of a researcher, especially a young postdoc or graduate student. This was addressed as well, thankfully. Berrien Moore from the NAS stated "Once again, we are mortgaging our future… the impact of program delays on morale and maintaining core competency is large… I believe that the scientific community as a whole is strongly supportive of the new leadership [meaning NASA Administrator Griffin]. However NASA is now being asked to do more with the resources it’s been given… we aren’t going to fix this by rearranging the deck chairs; something more fundamental has got to happen."

Congressman Wu made a passionate speech about a lack of leadership and funding on the part of the Bush Administration. The new vision for exploration is like an unfunded mandate: go do this, but you won’t get any new money to do it. This was a chilling message to NASA science when it was announced then, and we’re seeing it come true now. Wu was clear that he would vote to give more funds to NASA tomorrow if he could, which was very nice to hear indeed.

So my concerns coming into this — will Congress say NASA needs more funding, what small missions are being cut to fund big ones, and how will this affect the next generation of young scientists — were all addressed, and in a manner I thought was relevant and heartening. These are now being replaced with my next concern: what will NASA do with this information from scientists and Congress? Exploration and science go hand in hand. To devastate one to feed the other is a horrendous error. What future expedition will be sacrificed because we didn’t want to fund the science in the first place?

*Ironically, the very first thing Cleave listed was NASA satellite analysis of the Greenland ice sheet: this was the same study that George Deutsch was trying to keep climatologist James Hansen from talking about because it directly contradicts the Bush Administration’s stance on global warming.


Comments (27)

Links to this Post

  1. The Value of NASA | | May 17, 2011
  1. Dr. Huntress delivered blistering comments. I most enjoyed them.

  2. Henry is reporting that: “Upon returning to her office from this morning’s hearing, reliable sources reveal that Mary Cleave cancelled the Discovery “Dawn” mission. “

  3. Statements from todays hearings have been posted at SpaceRef.

    Dr. Wesley T. Huntress, Jr.

    “NASA’s plans have been called Apollo on steroids, but the budget provided is Apollo on food stamps.”

  4. I am watching very closely to see about any followup about Dawn. NASAWatch is very reliable about such things, but I want to make absolutely sure this is true before exploding in public about this.

  5. Henry

    nasawatch also added: “Reliable sources report that NASA called Dawn Principal Investigator Chris Russell today with the news of the mission’s cancellation – just as he was off to attend his mother’s funeral.”

  6. Mark


    Yep, “Cuts”.

    Ya gotta love it.

    Only in America can funding go UP … and somehow it’s a CUT.

    I’ll make more salary this year than last … but not as much as I’d like it to be. Does that mean I’m actually getting a pay cut in budget-speak?

    Sorry as pro-science as I am (obviously, as I read this blog often), I’ve had about as much as I can take of the constant press harping over “cuts” when in fact federal budget spending is out of control. We end up with a 2.7 *trillion* dollar budget … and each interest group is screaming about … yep, *cuts*. The only way a $5.3B budget can be a “cut” is if you use the math they used on Mars Climate Orbiter 😉

    Don’t get me wrong – in a general sense, I’d love to see more money go to science and the NASA budget in general, because I firmly believe that in the long run that money comes back hundredfold to us all in technological advances that are commercialized … but the media’s constant barrage of reports of “cuts” when there never are any are just wearing.


  7. Christian Burnham

    Mark wrote “Only in America can funding go UP … and somehow it’s a CUT.”

    I think the major point the BA has been making is that congress wants NASA to carry out manned missions costing billions without a corresponding increase in NASA’s budget. That money then has to come from other programs, notably research. I don’t know if the total budget is increasing or decreasing- but that’s not the whole picture- it’s also how that money is allocated.

  8. These are cuts no matter how you try to redefine it. I have already listed the missions that have been cut, canceled, delayed, all due to funds being moved from science to exploration. NASA’s money overall went up, but it gets distributed over a lot of different missions. NASA got more money. But try telling the PI of NuSTAR that her funding wasn’t cut.

  9. P. Edward Murray

    Economics 101

    This is what happens when you:

    Have one war that is legit…war on Terrorism,
    have another war that is not legit…Iraq,
    Cut Taxes giving wealthy folks money back
    (Read: They don’t pay much anyway and no one
    pays as much Tax as we used to ..MaxTax = 50%)

    Don’t even attempt to raise revenue.

    What gets cut?

    Oh, just the little things that don’t matter..
    like science, like aid for anyone who isn’t rich etc

    So, we, as a Nation are spending like crazy while
    we are giving money back and not too the folks who
    need extra, while cutting everything that matters and not
    trying in the least to raise revenues.

    This is even worse than what happened during Guns ‘n Butter LBJ & Nixon & Ford who gave us the High Interest & Inflation rates in the late ’70’s.

    Did I miss anything?

    Oh, just that we don’t own our country anymore, the Japanese do as well as the Chinese etc.

    And we are headed for the future…

    If a regular person like you or I did these things we would be

  10. It’s not just the postdocs and the graduate students… it’s also any pre-tenure faculty who can suffer greatly.

    Most of the research universities want to see “continuous funding” for their pre-tenure science faculty. If you’ve bet your career on a NASA mission and it gets cut at the wrong time, you find ourself out of tenure, and also with a big black mark (“didn’t get tenure”) against finding another job.

    What’s more, the fact that NASA is basically getting out of the astronomy funding game is already greatly increasing the pressure on astronomy funding at NSF; talking to my program officer there, he expects a bigger increase next year. NSF funding is already a long shot and difficult to give. One young guy in my generation (he was a grad student a year or two behind me at Caltech) was on an NSF panel, and made the comment to me a few months ago that they were turning down “good proposals by *bigshots*”. The fact that you even have to be a bigshot to be in the game in the first place is very disturbing.

    This is a very bad time to be a young scientist. Funding is getting ever-harder to get, but upwardly-mobile minded Universities are getting ever more demanding that their young scientists be funded.

    Maybe there are just too many of us astronomers; at the moment, there are more astronomers trying to get funding than the society seems to be willing to support. Perhaps science in the USA really is dying; that would be a disaster, though, because it will only presage the death of the USA as a viable enterprise at all.

    It’s all very depressing and stressful. And stress prevents the development of new brain cells….


  11. Mark

    P. Edward might want not to snooze thru Econ 101 and perhaps move on to Econ 102 😉

    The top 50% of income earners pay 96% of the tax revenue. The top 1% pay more than 30%. Scientists should be focused on data – not emotion. IRS data:

    As to the tax cuts, they’ve stimulated growth in the economy – and in revenue, which is up:

    Facts – not emotion.

    You are correct on one point – the gov’t should be run like we all have to run our personal lives, and a balanced budget should be the start. But we probably differ as to how we would each propose to do that. If I decide that I need a new car, I don’t get to go in to work and demand a pay increase – but too many people think that our government should spend the money first, and then simply take more money from the people who actually earn it in taxes.

    I’d love to see the hard science funding at NASA go through the roof. Off the top of my head, for instance we have this pork-laden $200B construction bill that should never have been passed – a couple billion off of that would have purchased a *lot* of pocket protectors for the slide rule guys.

    Perhaps more interesting about this decades old divide between the manned/unmanned programs at NASA, is that a lot of the current changes are in large part being driven by events – notably, the destuction of Columbia which caused the entire manned program to grind to a halt – including the unacceptable and shortsighted decision to cancel HST servicing missions.

    So here’s one for you … the law of unintended consequences. Just as it can be argued that far more people have died of malaria and other diseases as a result of the banning of DDT, is it possible that the environmental lobby destroyed the Columbia? After all, ET foam seemed to stick just fine until STS-87 when pressure caused NASA to change to an “eco-friendly” process. The destruction of Columbia caused a ripple effect which is now impacting many of the people who (I would expect) were loudest in forcing a change.

    I say, spray those tanks with epoxy, resin, even those cool 1970’s deodorant cans we can’t use any more because of the so-called “ozone hole” and LIGHT THOSE CANDLES.

    Here’s a guy whining about ground-based telescopes being “useless” by 2050 …

    Who cares? Telescopes belong UP THERE. And by 2050, one would hope they’d be serviced by a network of space stations etc.

    Complaining about people taking a holiday in majorca? Sounds like this pasty git could use a little sun and get out of the observatory for a few days, might make him less of a grouch 😉


  12. Tookie

    Well, Mark beat me to it with the response to P. Edward Murray’s ignorance.

    >>> “Did I miss anything?”

    Yes, Edward, most of objective reality.

    How can some people who are so gung ho about science and scientific method be so fraking loose with the facts when it comes to anything else? That’s the saddest thing about the world of science- the people in it can be just mindlessly ideological as anyone else. Even more so in ways. It makes me have so little hope for the species.

    Ideology is a mental illness. If you find yourself arguing for or against a political Party or touting the “one solution to rule them all” type theories for social issues, your brain is malfunctioning.

  13. Investments in good science has better returns greater than other investments.

    Investments in “earmarked” laws only help politicians get reelected – and this is a bad investmet in several ways.

    Diverting some of “pork” funds would be a good idea.

    The interest in planets supporting life outside our solar system may not be productive because of the many lifetimes required to reach them at speeds limited by the velocity of light.

    I suggest research on travel speeds practical for traveling faster than light. Results may take long times but will not benefit current people – but will be necesary in the future.

  14. P. Edward Murray

    Sounds like there are a few Republicans here:(
    None of you know that NO wealthy person pays as much as they
    used to…not emotion,not subjectivity but FACT

    Tax cuts…giving away money, BIG spending on two different kinds of wars,selling off American assets (Ports) Making quite sure that American Jobs are sent Overseas…

    These are not figments of my imagination, but if you don’t get it,Sorry to say you have your collective heads in the sand!:”(

  15. Jon Niehof

    NSF will feel a bit of a squeeze, yes, but there’s also a simple issue: NSF will not fund data analysis of NASA missions. Modelling, data assimilation, all sorts of things that the NASA data enables, but not pure analysis of the data. Without NASA funds, we lose that data connection.

    I’m glad Dr. Bagenal was at the hearings; she’s very much worth listening to.

    Did Congressman Ehlers not say anything? We have the same alma mater and I voted for him a couple of times so I’d like to drop him a line….

  16. Mark wrote:

    “Here’s a guy whining about ground-based telescopes being “useless” by 2050 ……Who cares? Telescopes belong UP THERE.”

    You can seriously ask “Who cares”? Let me be clear — are you saying that ground-based astronomy is not valuable?

    Criticisms of environmentalism are worth hearing, on the other hand. I would have expected you to disbelieve the BBC article, not to dismiss the value of ground-based astronomy. Space telescopes cannot provide large numbers of people with a way to practice astronomy — or to enjoy the skies. But perhaps that last point is too much emotion for you and not enough fact.

    I have a question for you. What makes a trip to Majorca a valuable thing? To me such a trip seems all about emotions and enjoyment. Or does its value arise from the money that people spend, which is valuable in an economic sense?

    What about the money spent on amateur astronomy? Is there some room in your view to “care” about ground-based astronomy?

  17. Rene


    You left out one fact. DDT isn’t banned. I just saw a brochure Sunday. Not an emotion.

  18. Supernova

    By the way, CNN seems to have corrected “astronauts” to “scientists.” :)

  19. Will

    In the Feb 15, 2006 issue (vol. 32, No. 4) of the Washington Spectator newsmagazine is an essay by Doug Henwood, the author of “After the New Economy,” which postulates: “by most conventional measures, especially job growth, the Bush years have been the worst of any president in the last fifty years.” He then uses his sources, including the Congressional Budget Office, to prove this thesis. He offers a solid argument for why cuts in education, social programs, science, etc. are an inevitable consequence of the fiscal policies of the neocon Republicans (who have become an anathema to the real fiscal conservatives in the Republican party) and their lap dog, George II, which have pushed us into becoming a huge debtor with the rest of the world. The budget will not soon recover; there are three more years remaining in this Administration’s final term, and even if we begin right now to halt the destructive effects of our downwardly-spiraling economy, it will take years beyond the end of this term to effect a change. So, get used to belt tightening. Get used to working with less. Get used to being a second-rate country in regard to all the sciences in comparison to European nations…

  20. Eric


    On the subject of taxes…

    Poorer people get the bulk of their income from their jobs. They have few, if any, investments. Richer people have far more investments.

    But the tax treatment of the two is drastically different.

    If I make $50,000 in income, I’m going to be paying FICA, social security, and medicare tax. If I’m single, I will pay about $11,800 in total for these three, or about (23%) (as a ballpark).

    If, on the other hand, my parents were wealthy and left me a trust fund or I’ve accumulated a lot of investments, I get my income through dividends and capital gains. If I keep the capital gains long term (1 year or more), both of these are taxed at 15%. That’s an 8% advantage for me.

    On a marginal basis, it’s much worse – if I get $1 more from investments, I keep $0.85 of it. If I get $1 more from salary, I get to keep $0.66 of it (25% tax rate + 7.65% SS/Medicare). A 16% advantage for me.

    And this only gets worse as incomes go up, since income taxes are progressive but capital gains and dividends are not.

    How is that fair?

  21. Below is the letter that I sent today to the three members of Cogress who represent me.

    Dear Mr. Durbin/Obama/Kirk,

    I’m appalled that many of NASA’s planned scientific missions are being scrapped to pay for the administration’s ambitions to once again put men on the Moon and later on Mars.

    Sending men to the Moon (been there, done that) and Mars are monstrously expensive stunts. That’s all. Astronauts may have been necessary to explore the Moon over thirty years ago. Since then, clever American engineers have figured out how to explore the depths of the ocean and the bodies of the solar system with robotic devices. These tools are relatively inexpensive and can extend our senses far more safely, quickly and effectively than with the outmoded use of astronauts. Someday humans may colonize other planets. But that is in the far distant future. Today we can best pave the way into space for our descendents by exploiting our currently most effective means: marvelous American built machines.

    It would be greatly appreciated if government officials (including the president and members of Congress) would do a better job explaining to the public that 21st century technology has made astronauts obsolete. Instead, we get demagoguery from the president appealing to early 20th century romantic notions of fighter pilots morphing into Buck Rogers type space explorers. Let’s get realistic. If we’re going to spend tax dollars on space exploration, let’s do it with the awesome inventions produced by American ingenuity and not with daredevils performing pointless stunts.

    My cousin, John Andelin, was the head of the science division of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. His agency was abolished as a “cost cutting measure”. In reality, I suspect it cut too much pork. John told me 20 years ago that manned spaceflight is tremendously more expensive than that done with machines, mainly because of the cost of redundancy (or perfection as he called it) for maximum safety. That’s not to mention the huge cost of life support systems. In testimony before Congressional committees, he stated that the International Space Station was feasible, but would he horribly inefficient and costly compared with mechanical alternatives. He has been proven right. Perhaps his agency should be reestablished so that it can provide wise counsel to Congress regarding the optimum methods for the future exploration of the solar system.

    I welcome the use of my tax dollars for the scientific exploration of outer space with the use of robotic devices. I would hope that you will not join in the effort to allocate a massive amount of federal funds for unproductive stunts by space cowboys.

    Curt Renz

  22. I disagree that these are stunts. In fact, I support going to the Moon (though we need to defer Mars for some time until some pretty serious bugs are worked out). I don’t have time to go into it all, but I will say that I support going to the Moon if it is done correctly. Not if it means stepping on the neck of science.

  23. P. Edward Murray


    I never understood the beef between manned vs. unmanned.
    You will always need robotic explorers to do he initial recon work.
    Such as the Rangers,Surveyors etc. we used before we went to The Moon
    with Apollo.

    Robotic Explorers can also go where no man can go, close to Jupiter or to The Sun.

    As great as our little rovers are, there is only so much you can do.
    For example, what happens,and it happens often, when one of these fantastic robotic explorers blows up?

    No dice…you’ve lost that spacecraft.

    If you have a manned mission, no doubt you will have plenty of equipment to operate. You will be able to go and do what the little rover can not do.

    And as to politics…

    Well, as we live in a Representative Democracy, it functions best when we
    all take part in the political process. If you do not participate, if you don’t at least vote, you have very little , if any room to voice your opinion because you already chose not to participate.

    You have the right and the obligation to phone,write, e-mail or visit your representatives and let them know how you feel.

    In most elections nationally, a full 50% or more of the voting age population does not vote.

    Just think of how the last two presidential elections would have been if a few more percent of those who chose not to, actually decide to come out and vote?

    We wouldn’t be in the mess we are in now and we wouldn’t be having this exact discussion.

  24. Adam

    Hi All

    At least you guys have a Space Science budget to cut. No such animal here in Australia – we space nuts have to live vicariously off space-faring nations and their triumphs/failures.

    Yet back in the 1960s we could’ve developed a satellite launcher of our own and actually be making some money lobbing satellites for our neighbours by now.

    We know all about political expediency and short-sighted policy.


    BTW Our Prime Minister’s nickname is “Shrub”… because he’s a little Bush.

  25. Tookie

    P. Edward Murray Says:
    >> “Sounds like there are a few Republicans here:(”

    Typical ideologue. Reduce everyone who disagrees with you to labels. I’m a libertarian (small l) independent who has no use for the GOP.

    See what I mean about it being a mental illness, folks? I even said if you obsess about one Party or the other it’s a clear symptom. They’re like broken records or stopped clocks. Welcome to the realm of zero intelllect.

    >>Well, as we live in a Representative Democracy, it functions best
    >>when we all take part in the political process. If you do not participate,
    >>if you don’t at least vote, you have very little , if any room to voice
    >>your opinion because you already chose not to participate.

    Wow, thanks for that newsflash, Murrow.

    Of course when the voting choice is between Tweedledee and Tweedledum, what’s the point? You can seriously think Kerry was worth any more than the joke currently in the White House, do you? And now the Dem front runner is Hillary? People take that meglomaniacal, meme-addled psychopath seriously? This is the best anyone can come up with? It almost makes me hope that 2004 VD17 *does* hit the Earth.

  26. P. Edward Murray


    Typical dialogue from folks who just bitch about everything and don’t do anything to make it better!

    Sorry, but that doesn’t score points with anyone.


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