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CSF Report

U.S. Space Policy: Where are we going, and why are we in this hand basket — I mean — space shuttle?

by Sarah K. Noble, 2004-2005 GSA-U.S. Geological Survey Congressional Science Fellow
Reprinted from GSA Today, v. 15, no. 8 (August 2005)

When I signed up to work on the Hill this year, I knew that I wanted to work on space policy, and I knew that it was going to be an interesting year.

I remember hearing a Chinese curse that stated, "May you live in interesting times." Interesting times indeed: from the unique perspective of a staffer on the House Science Committee's space subcommittee, I am witnessing firsthand what I imagine (or at least, hope) will go down in history as a pivotal time for space exploration. From the winning of the Ansari X Prize® to the shuttle's return to flight and the president's vision for space exploration, the space program finally seems to be going somewhere again. It's all very exciting.

It is the president's vision for space exploration (the "VSE" — you know that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA] has an acronym for everything) that is occupying much of my time. The president announced this bold new space initiative more than a year ago, and although President Bush himself has been largely quiet on the subject, behind the scenes things have been happening quickly. NASA is now in the midst of a massive transformation. The White House has said that because Congress passed NASA's budget last year, even giving NASA a small increase in a year when most discretionary budgets were cut, it is tantamount to a congressional stamp of approval for the VSE. Most members of Congress would beg to differ. The budget was passed as part of a giant omnibus bill, which didn't give Congress the opportunity to scrutinize it the way they would have liked. That is the subcommittee's job this year — to take an in-depth, critical look at the VSE and decide if that is the right direction for the U.S. Space Program.

To that end, we have been quite busy holding hearings and having meetings with people throughout NASA's administration, keeping an eye on NASA's road mapping (strategic planning) exercise, and generally trying to figure out where NASA is heading and how it is going to get there. All of this scrutiny should result in a comprehensive "NASA authorization bill" this summer. In theory, the science committee is expected to produce such a bill every two years to provide NASA direction. The last NASA authorization bill was passed in 2000, so we are a little behind. Both the chair of the full science committee and the space subcommittee chair have said publicly that a NASA authorization bill is their number one priority this year. Perhaps I'm naive, but I am hopeful that we will manage to produce one.

In the meantime, allow me to share with you a few of my own thoughts on where NASA is headed. On the surface, the president's VSE (to return to the Moon and then go to Mars and beyond) is a great idea. NASA has been hanging out in Earth orbit for far too long, and it is past time for them to have a long-range goal. But I'm worried.

I'm worried about the role that science will play in this new vision. I have more than once heard supporters of the VSE state that exploration is science, and that is wrong; all science is exploration, but not all exploration is science. Already we have seen some troubling signs coming out of NASA. The president's budget proposal for next year shows significant cuts in many of NASA's science programs.

I'm not the only person on the Hill worried about the president's VSE and its effect on science programs at NASA. I have been pleasantly surprised to find that most of the representatives on the science committee, from both sides of the aisle, share this concern, so don't lose hope. The battle isn't over; in fact, it has barely begun.

I don't have room here to discuss all of my concerns about the VSE, but let me take a minute to cover one concern that I know many of you share. The earth sciences were particularly hard-hit in the president's budget. Several missions have been cut (like the Landsat Data Continuity mission and the Glory mission), others have been delayed, and future missions are likely to be fewer and farther between.

Much of the funds are being used to help with the constantly escalating costs of returning the space shuttle to flight. Hopefully, by the time you read this article, we will be successfully back in the spaceflight business, but the funding crunch is far from over. The space shuttle and space station will continue to eat up the lion's share of NASA's budget, and now preparations for returning to the Moon, particularly designing the CEV (crew exploration vehicle), will demand another chunk of the pie. With the federal budget stretched tight, someone has to lose.

Why was earth science targeted? Maybe because it has become an easy target. NASA's earth science program really has no coherent plan for the future, no "vision" of its own. One way to remedy this is through a decadal survey like those the astronomy and planetary science communities conduct. These surveys are produced by the National Academy of Science with significant input from scientists throughout the field. They provide NASA and Congress with a coherent strategy and prioritized agenda from which to make decisions. The good news is that there is a decadal survey currently under way for the earth sciences (go to http://qp.nas.edu/decadalsurvey to learn more). This is, understandably, a difficult task — the earth science community is much larger and arguably more diverse than the astronomy or planetary science communities — but just because it is difficult doesn't make it any less necessary. The bad news is that the survey won't be finished until next year, too late to influence this year's budget.

NASA's earth science program also doesn't sell itself as well as it should. Earth science missions may not be as sexy as Mars rovers or as awe inspiring as Hubble images. That just means that the earth science community needs to work harder at selling both the general public and Congress on the value of NASA's earth science program. That really shouldn't be so difficult. Earth science missions have many practical applications — from predicting the weather to predicting the path of a hurricane, from understanding land-use change to understanding global climate change. I have found, though, that there often seems to be a disconnect as to where this information comes from: I call it the "Why do we need weather satellites when we already have the weather channel?" mentality.

Okay, you knew that it was coming: we have now arrived at the point in the article where I encourage you to get involved. Yes, you. The science community needs to do a better job of communicating the importance of NASA's earth science missions, particularly those scientists who are directly involved in these missions, but the rest of us can help.

What can you do? Talk to your friends and family, write an op-ed letter to your favorite newspaper, and talk to school groups and scout troops about what these missions have and will accomplish. Imagine if the public were as riled about the threat of the Landsat program ending as they are about Hubble or Voyager ending. That would motivate Congress.

What else? Take the direct route. Write, call, or visit your members of Congress. Trust me, it's not as scary as it sounds. A few tips:

These tips apply even if you want to talk about something other than NASA's earth science program. One thing that I have learned over and over this year: on the Hill, knowledge is power. I know that the earth science community has plenty of knowledge to share. You can be a tremendous resource for Congress, if only they can get your phone number.

This manuscript is submitted for publication by Sarah K. Noble, 2004-2005 GSA-U.S. Geological Survey Congressional Science Fellow, with the understanding that the U.S. government is authorized to reproduce and distribute reprints for governmental use. The one-year fellowship is supported by GSA and by the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior, under Assistance Award No. 02HQGR0141. The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the author and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing the official policies, either expressed or implied, of the U.S. government. Noble can be reached at Sarah.Noble@mail.house.gov.