Declaring that NASA "can't afford to do everything on its plate," the agency's new chief last week laid out sweeping changes to the U.S. civilian space program. Michael Griffin says he plans to scale back space station research, defer work on a future Mars robotic mission, inject more cash into NASA's struggling Earth science effort, and back a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa using conventional rather than nuclear propulsion. He also pledged to protect the science budget from the cost of sending humans to the moon and Mars.
Griffin's plans for the $16.2 billion agency were laid out in a bulky budget document for the current year sent to Congress 11 May and reinforced at a Senate hearing the next day. The new operating plan shaves $53 million this year from a $4 billion space science budget. Bigger savings, Griffin says, would come from deferring work on human exploration technologies, reducing the number of contractors involved in building a new human exploration vehicle, and scaling back the Prometheus nuclear propulsion system championed by his predecessor Sean O'Keefe (Science, 30 January 2004, p. 614). Although the latter would torpedo plans for a probe to examine Jupiter's array of icy moons, Griffin assured legislators that a mission to "Europa remains a very high priority."
The shifts within the space science budget have big implications for individual projects. For example, NASA intends to defer launch of the Mars Science Laboratory from 2009 to 2011 and scale back funding for the Space Interferometry Mission and the Terrestrial Planet Finder--two missions designed to seek extrasolar planets. Some of that money would be diverted to Earth science, and another portion would be used to ensure potential Hubble servicing and, eventually, a safe deorbiting of the massive telescope.
Griffin also suggested "alternative configurations" that would allow NASA to complete the space station with fewer than the 28 shuttle flights now planned by cutting back on some of the proposed research. Several senators criticized the move, but Griffin insisted that the station comes first. "Research is valuable and must be done," he said, "but if it is delayed a very few years, ... then ... that delay would be worth it." Griffin also promised legislators that exploration would trump the overall science budget only "under the most extreme budget pressure."
Despite their concerns about individual projects, legislators seemed to welcome Griffin's direct approach to the agency's fiscal troubles. "Some of the things you've said give us heartburn," said Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD). But "thank you for your candor." Given the difficult choices Griffin must make, that is high praise.