Cost Overruns, Cancelling of Small Missions Hurt Science Opportunities

NASA’s astrophysics program has achieved the agency’s highest priority goals by focusing on large missions such as the Hubble and James Webb space telescopes but in doing so, it has squeezed out smaller missions that could be laying the foundation for future scientific discovery, says a new report from the National Research Council.

“The progress in astrophysical science over the past decade has been remarkable,” said Martha Haynes, vice chair of the committee that wrote the report and Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. “However, the revolutionary discoveries were based on missions NASA developed the decade before. We are concerned about 2010 and beyond because there are no low-cost, quick-response science programs being prepared today.”

The committee was tasked with assessing how well programs in NASA’s astrophysics division – which studies objects such as stars and galaxies and their interactions – address the strategies, goals, and priorities outlined in previous National Research Council reports, primarily Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium (2001) and Connecting Quarks With the Cosmos (2003).

The one-year study determined that although NASA’s astrophysics budget is close to a historic high, priority missions have experienced enormous cost overruns — roughly $2 billion from 2000 to 2010 — which has left fewer resources for small missions. Also, in recent years, instability in the astrophysics division due to management and mission changes has diminished progress and momentum for realizing scientific opportunities outlined in the Research Council’s decadal survey. In addition, the cuts that have been made to smaller missions have disrupted the training of young scientists who would be the natural leaders of the medium and large-size missions in the future.

The report recommends that NASA find a way to do small-scale low-cost missions that can be quickly conceived, built, and launched. For starters, the agency should restore funding for the Science Mission Directorate’s Explorer Program to its level from five years ago. NASA has launched over 80 successful Explorer spacecraft for a wide range of scientific investigations over the past half century.

The committee also recommends that NASA limit mission costs by exploring less expensive launch services and re-examining whether mission safety requirements match the missions size. Relaxing de-orbiting requirements for smaller spacecraft involved in low-cost missions, and strengthening international collaborations on missions of all sizes could also control costs, the report says.

The study was sponsored by NASA. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter. The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. A committee roster follows.

Copies of Performance Assessment of NASA’s Astrophysics Program are available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

From National Academies

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