NASA Cutbacks Cause Uncertainty Among Space Researchers

NASA's space science program is at risk, according to a recent report from a National Research Council (NRC) panel. The panel, which was tasked with assessing the impact of the proposed FY 2007 NASA budget, concluded that the budget provides the agency with insufficient funds to allow it to meet all of its mandates while remaining strong in science. "NASA is being asked to accomplish too much with too little," says the report.

That message isn't lost on NASA. In February, the agency announced that science-program cutbacks of $3 billion over 5 years will be needed if NASA's budget is funded at proposed levels. In order to meet the mandates laid out in the Administration's Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), NASA says it will have to scale back or eliminate many of its science projects.

But it's not just today's science that's at risk, the report suggests. According to the NRC report, NASA's 2007 budget request would require eliminating "whole research areas and research communities," continuing a process that began in 2005 when the Administration mandates first began to exert an impact on NASA's budget. Particularly worrisome is the impact these continued cuts would have on the workforce and, above all, on early-career researchers. The number of researchers likely to be affected isn't known, but just in NASA's life and physical sciences programs, 240 NASA grants have been eliminated--mostly at universities--affecting 500 postdoctoral fellows and Ph.D. and undergraduate students.

From science to spaceships

VSE's goal is to send humans back to the moon before the end of the next decade and on to Mars after that. As a result of the mandate, NASA's number one priority is to build the next generation of crewed space vehicles it needs to get us there. To stay on a tight timeline, the aging space shuttle fleet must be kept flying so that the international space station can be completed before the shuttles' scheduled retirement in 2010.

All these mandates have pressed NASA's science programs hard; the 2007 budget proposal NRC evaluated is just the latest in a series of research-program cuts that started in FY 2004, the year before VSE's effects appeared in an Administration budget request.

Although flagship missions like giant space telescopes and the next generation of Mars rovers are untouched, the proposed 2007 budget would reduce NASA's Research and Analysis grants and small missions by 15%, hitting the workforce where it's most vulnerable. "That's where a lot of people get their first step in their careers," says Lennard Fisk, a space science professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, a former NASA administrator and chair of the panel that wrote the NRC report. "For those ... in the academic world that are training people, this is a chilling message," he says. "There will be people who will be fired because of these cuts, or they won't get their career started, but I suspect that there's a larger number of people who will be discouraged by those cuts"--and who consequently won't enter the field. "That's the part that you have to be very careful of," says Fisk.

A large fraction of the cutbacks are hitting young researchers working on the small-scale, university-partnered "Explorer" missions. By building new science instruments, the university space science community has traditionally played an integral part in the development of these faster, smaller, and cheaper satellites and probes. But with the ongoing cuts, fewer missions are flying and less hardware is being built at universities. "These are pipeline programs; these are the programs that produce both human capital and technologies, and NASA basically disrupted the pipeline," says Fisk.

Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft

Pushing back progress

For the Explorer spacecraft known as WISE (Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer), the road has been long and the end is not in sight. "Five years out from the original proposal for the project, we are still at least 4 years away from launch--if we are lucky," says Edward Wright, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Los Angeles, and WISE principal investigator. Wright and his team expected to get the green light earlier this year to enter the final stages of study; instead, they got a letter from NASA saying their 2006 funding was being cut from $70 million to $30 million, and that before the year is over, a decision will be made whether to scrap the mission entirely.

Long delays like this are very disruptive because they make it impossible for trainees to finish training in a reasonable amount of time. Due to the uncertainties in the WISE project, Wright hasn't been able to place any full-time graduate student or postdoc on this mission. "It's okay for tenured faculty or people in institutions like JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory], which is a big space laboratory, to work on it, because they can shift over to another project if Explorer missions like WISE run into budget difficulties," says Wright. At smaller programs, however, "it's definitely hard to staff up, especially with younger people."

Fiona Harrison

A lost opportunity

Selected by NASA back in 2003 as part of the Explorer program, NuStar (the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) was slated for launch in 2009. The NuStar team developed advanced mirrors and detectors that work at much higher x-ray energies than was previously possible. This would allow NuStar to look at massive black holes in far-off galaxies and collapsed stars hidden behind gas and dust. "We thought this is what the Explorer program is all about, taking innovative concepts and innovative technology and really doing first-rate science on a small platform. NuStar was like a pathfinder mission opening a whole new window on the universe," says Fiona Harrison, a professor of physics and astronomy at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena and principal investigator for the NuStar project.

But after expenditures of more than $7.5 million, and with more than two dozen students and postdocs deeply involved, the mission was canceled abruptly just a month before a scheduled technology review. "We first heard of the news through a press briefing," says Harrison. "We were burning the midnight oil working on the confirmation review and basically tying up this process, when all of a sudden, very abruptly, the next day, the project doesn't exist."

Because no substitute funding is in place, the team is dispersing. "We have no choice; it was such an abrupt cancellation that it gave us no opportunity to try and plan for the future," says Harrison. "If I had known 6 months to a year in advance, I could have figured out how to maintain enough of a base to pick up again."

As for Harrison, she's following the money. "We've got a fairly major project now with the Department of Homeland Security, taking the detectors that we developed for NuStar and putting them into cell phones to detect radioactive material," she says.

Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuStar) team

Point of no return

Everyone agrees that early-career astrophysicists who develop flight instrumentation are among the hardest hit. The cancellation has meant that younger NuStar team members such as postdoc Wayne Baumgartner and researcher Michael Pivovaroff have had to step away from NASA-centered research projects. Baumgartner now will spend his remaining postdoc time on a balloon project that led to NuStar, but he has no idea what he'll do next. "The money for this field comes from NASA, and it's just not supporting small missions. There's no money, no jobs, [and] nobody's building anything," says Baumgartner.

Get more in-depth viewpoints from these young researchers.

Pivovaroff, who transferred from Caltech to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory about 2 years ago, devoted only a quarter of his research time to NuStar. Now he works on Department of Defense and Homeland Security projects unrelated to astrophysics, and he worries that it won't be possible to return to the field. "If you take away the money, you start losing key personnel, and trying to recapture that is nearly impossible," says Pivovaroff. "So even if NASA just turns the money back on, there's not going to be anyone there who knows how to build this stuff."

Weak signs of life

Another vulnerable area is astrobiology, which attracts a "larger-than-average number of early-career participants," according to the NRC report. But those participants may have no place to go; the NASA astrobiology program has seen a 13% funding drop from FY 2006 levels--to $65 million--and are likely to see another half sliced from the budget in 2007. NASA says the reduction will be a permanent. All new awards for 2005 and 2006 have already been eliminated.

It has been a frustrating year for second-year postdoc Darlene Lim, who works at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. "I put a lot of time and effort over the last 2 years writing proposals in order to put myself into a position such that once I finished next year, I would have had some proposals funded so that I could develop my own independent funding stream and research," Lim says. Now she has no hope of getting funding from NASA for her third postdoc year so that she can continue to scour ancient lakebeds in search of microbial fossils.

Darlene Lim

Lim and others like her are at risk of becoming fossils themselves. But Lim's research has taught her that one key to survival is adaptation, so she is resubmitting her proposals to different agencies in other fields, such as earth sciences. "It's a tough situation to be in, but this is the nature of the beast, and it just forces us to be entrepreneurial," Lim says.

Flagship missions intact

Everyone agrees that NASA's budget cuts are serious, but the situation should be kept in perspective, says Nicholas White, an x-ray astrophysicist and the director of the Laboratory for High-Energy Astrophysics at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland: "I think we've got to be cautious; there's been a shock to the system this year, and it's very easy to overreact. [But] there are still a lot of good projects going on in the program." White points to flagship missions such as the Hubble Space Telescope that are unaffected by the cutbacks and continue to produce first-rate science, "supporting students and allowing them to become our future leaders in the field," he says.

And future projects such as the James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble's successor, will offer many opportunities for young researchers, White says: "I would hope that that kind of excitement would attract the best students in the field, and ones that are being affected by these immediate short-term problems can see past that."

Read the full NRC report on the impact of NASA's budget on space science programs.

But NASA and the nation will pay a steep price for the cuts in the long term, believes Fisk and his NRC panel. The agency has tried for years to lure the most talented scientists to work on NASA's issues, but, Fisk says, people are not foolish. "The best are going to say, 'I got to play with NASA, and you cut me off. I am not coming back.' It's not only the immediacy of the cuts that are worrisome, but it's the long-term implications."

Andrew Fazekas is a correspondent for Next Wave and may be reached at

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