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A House Science committee hearing on the future of the Hubble Space Telescope illustrates clearly how the battle for NASA money is about to reach critical mass.
The stakes are high, prompting the death of several decades-old NASA programs so that a corresponding number of new projects can see life.
The battle lines are complicated and confused, as different factions realign themselves in ways not seen since the very founding of NASA almost 50 years ago.
At the moment, this war of turf is being fought over whether to send another servicing mission — manned or unmanned — to the Hubble Space Telescope.
Several witnesses at the hearing Wednesday argued for either replacing Hubble entirely or using robots to service the space telescope, but the discussion was dominated by speakers from the National Academy of Sciences panel, which in December had strongly recommended NASA send astronauts and the space shuttle to service Hubble. That panel also concluded — quite bluntly — the likelihood of a robot mission succeeding was “remote.”
Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Texas, noted, “I think that the burden of proof has to be placed on anyone who would differ markedly with (the academy panel’s) conclusions.”
The question of how NASA determined the cost of each Hubble shuttle servicing mission also dominated the discussion.
“In the past, NASA has charged (its science budget) $100 million to fly a shuttle mission to Hubble,” explained Steven Beckwith, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which manages the orbiting instrument.
The rest of the shuttle’s cost, estimated by Beckwith to be around $4 billion per year, was considered general overhead and therefore was charged to NASA’s general budget.
At $100 million per flight, NASA could afford the cost of using the shuttle to maintain Hubble.
According to testimony at Wednesday’s hearing, however, NASA now wants to charge the science budget the full cost of a shuttle mission, which the space agency claims is approximately $1 billion. Such a price tag would eat up most if not all of the annual NASA science budget and for most scientists would be more than they would be willing to pay to keep Hubble operating.
Gordon noted, however, NASA previously had promised Congress it would not change its accounting methods.
“Is NASA management now planning to walk away from its earlier budgetary commitment to the NASA science program on the allocation of the Hubble servicing costs?” the congressman asked.
Yet, there were even doubts about NASA’s $1 billion figure for a shuttle mission.
“Why charge a Hubble-servicing mission a billion dollars when you don’t charge a billion dollars for every mission to the space station?” asked Louis Lanzerotti, who had chaired the national academies’ Hubble panel.
He explained if the true cost per shuttle mission was $1 billion, then the 25 missions to 30 missions required to finish the station would consume more than half of NASA’s budget over the next five years.
“There is some accounting here that does not compute,” Lanzerotti noted.
This debate over financing Hubble’s future illustrates how the battle lines have shifted in the debate over NASA. Previously, the scientific community would have been expected to argue against manned space flight in favor of robotic missions, but scientists at the hearing generally appeared more supportive of a manned mission to keep Hubble flying — assuming they were not overcharged for the work — rather than using robots or launching a replacement mission that was less capable.
These shifting battle lines can be seen in other ways. On Thursday, less than 24 hours after the hearing on Hubble, the national academies released a new report, “Science in NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration,” outlining how pure scientific research can work with President George W. Bush’s new initiative to send humans back to the moon for the benefit of both.
The report noted almost breathlessly how pure scientific research and human space exploration must go hand-in-hand.
“The appropriate science in a vibrant space program … will transform our understanding of the universe around us, and will in time transform us into a space-faring civilization that extends the human presence across the solar system,” it said.
The report, as well as the testimony at the House hearing, suggested for the first time in decades that a large percentage of scientists — possibly a majority — sees human space exploration as beneficial to pure scientific research, rather than an obstacle.
Unstated and perhaps unrecognized amid these budgetary wars over Hubble lurk the harsh tactics of political negotiation. For the past week, rumors have swirled through the space community that when NASA unveils its fiscal year 2006 budget this coming Monday, it will include no money for any servicing mission to Hubble, either by robots or humans.
Assuming the rumors are true, the decision might be nothing more than a clever negotiating ploy. By forcing scientists to fight for the funding necessary to keep Hubble flying, the administration effectively distracts interest from cuts in other science programs.
In the past, NASA bureaucrats had built what they dubbed “a wall” around NASA’s science funding. Even when the shuttle or International Space Station needed more cash, that money always came from somewhere else, leaving the budget for science projects sacrosanct.
As one source told UPI’s Space Watch last week, “That wall is now gone.” To fund the manned-space-exploration effort, all of NASA’s programs are on the table.
The first hint of that change came Jan. 24, 2004, when the spaceref.com Web site obtained a NASA memo from Curt Niebur, discipline scientist for the Outer Planets Research Program, to all scientists involved in outer planet research, telling them their FY 2005 funding had been cut.
“I regret to inform you that the FY05 funds to support this program have been redirected by the order of the NASA administrator to meet other agency needs,” Niebur wrote. “Therefore, NASA will be unable to provide you with any funds in FY05.”
Within days NASA disavowed the memo.
“Due to miscommunications within the Solar System Division, the e-mail that you received was misleading and premature,” wrote Andrew Dantzler, acting director of the Science Mission Directorate’s Solar System Division.
“The outer planets research funding has not been cut,” Dantzler explained and added the only changes had been an administrative shifting of the funds from one department to another.
Yet, even in his clarification e-mail Dantzler noted that “while the NASA FY05 budget is ‘in place,’ adjustments and augmentations must be made to the budget to account for the changing status and requirements of our flight programs and missions.”
In essence, the money that in the past had been allocated for research by cosmologists and planetary scientists is no longer theirs. To finance the engineering research necessary to build a new manned spacecraft, as well as send men back to the moon, NASA is shifting its priorities.
Previously, such a shift would have elicited howls of protest from the scientific community, their advocates in press and the public.
By focusing all attention on the funding cuts to the Hubble’s servicing mission, however, the Bush administration essentially has prevented the scientific community from controlling the debate. Because Hubble is so popular with the public, its needs get priority, so the debate about funding science research has been dominated by the need to get the Hubble servicing mission funded. Other cuts, should they be unveiled next week in NASA’s FY 2006 budget proposal, will receive much less publicity or attention as a result.
Nor does the scientific community seem to have the time, energy or even desire to battle for those other funds.
Thus — assuming the budget rumors are true — as the negotiations unfold, all the Bush administration has to do is agree to do one shuttle mission to Hubble at a cost the scientific community can afford and it will buy the freedom to reallocate the rest of NASA’s budget as it sees fit.
Considering that scientists appear increasingly on the side of manned space exploration anyway, these negotiations could go far more smoothly than in the past, and should quickly result in an invigorated manned program that also includes a mission to keep Hubble operating.