Sorry State of Science Politics in NASA

By Louis D. Friedman

The resignation in August of three noted leaders in space science from the NASA Advisory Council is a disaster. It is the third blow to science struck this year by NASA. First the US Administration presented a budget to Congress severely cutting back space science research and missions, including great exploration missions to Mars, Europa, and searching for terrestrial planets around other stars. Then, for no discernable reason, they announce that understanding the Earth is not a goal of NASA's anymore– despite the fact that understanding the Earth has been one of the principal products of space exploration. And now NASA Administrator Michael Griffin says he does not want the considered advice of scientists about space science and exploration – he wants it only about the decisions already made for the new exploration program focused entirely on the Moon and NASA's already decided architecture for it .

One forced resignation was of Wesley T. Huntress, Jr., Planetary Society President. Another was Eugene Levy, the provost of Rice University . Charles F. Kennel, Director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, then resigned from the Council for personal reasons. Huntress and Kennel are both former Associate Administrators of NASA, two of the very best who helped revitalize the Agency and set it on a direction of accomplishment in the 1990s.

Huntress and The Planetary Society (as well as I) are not just supporters of the Administration's Vision for Space Exploration, but we were also great and early supporters of Griffin personally. We lobbied for his appointment, and Griffin 's leadership of a Planetary Society study two years ago was a sign of our alliance. But time, and Washington , change things. In my view, the Vision is now clouded and we are headed on a different path–a path without any science guidance and one that will lead to no human exploration of other worlds.

The problem is not simply about budget priorities – those arguments exist every year. It is not simply about the size of the NASA budget – space enthusiasts always want it larger. It is much deeper; it is about the heart and soul of exploration, which is the fundamental goal of NASA. NASA has separated science from exploration, bureaucratically and in their development of missions. They dismiss the great robotic missions: Voyager, Galileo, Cassini, Mars Exploration Rover, New Horizons (past) and Europa Orbiter, Mars Sample Return, Dawn, Terrestrial Planet Finder (future) as only science. Whereas the Vision for Space Exploration strongly supported these robotic missions and the search for extraterrestrial life, the new NASA exploration program cut out half the research connected with the latter subject and all those future missions I just mentioned.

Why would they do this? If the Administration can't supply the funds for the Vision for Space Exploration goals, wouldn't just delaying them make more sense than cannibalizing the part of NASA that is working and has provided such valuable and exciting results to the world, and which was supposed to guide humans into the solar system?

I think I am beginning to understand why. In a little publicized speech last March, the President's science advisor, John Marburger, declared, “we want to incorporate the Solar System in our [the US] economic sphere” and then went on to say “The fundamental goal of this vision is to advance US scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program. It subordinates space exploration to the primary goals of scientific, security and economic interests.” Whoa – what happened to exploration? What are the American economic and security interests in human exploration of the Moon and Mars? What happened to “we came in peace for all mankind?”

Marburger has gone further. In testimony to Congress he asserted, “The greatest value of the Moon lies neither in science nor in exploration, but in its material ... The production of oxygen in particular, the major component (by mass) of chemical rocket fuel, is potentially an important Lunar industry.” This is ludicrous–we could probably not devise a more expensive way to make rocket fuel than by producing it on the Moon – especially with oxygen which we do not know how to extract, or at what cost.

Paraphrasing John Kennedy, Marburger asserts “We go to the Moon and do these other things, for its oxygen.”

I am beginning to think that the new interpretation of the Vision, and the new direction of NASA, is more ideological than visionary, more about extending our economic interests than anything to do with the public good and public interest in space exploration. This is why I feel we are fighting for the heart and soul of NASA (and space exploration around the world).

Maybe I am an alarmist; Griffin maintains that only the budget constraints have forced science cuts, and that he has to make them in order to get the new rockets built that will replace the shuttle (a goal we support). But then why all the anti-science rhetoric? Why these new policy pronouncements? And why, as asked above, cannibalize the science research and exploration missions that brought NASA such past glory?

Louis D. Friedman is co-founder and Executive Director of The Planetary Society, which is conducting a "Save Our Science" campaign to restore budget cuts made to the NASA space science program. For more information visit:

This article is reprinted from The Planetary Society Weblog

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff

October 2006 (Volume 15, Number 9)

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