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As NASA Prepares to Retire Its Final Shuttle, Agency Leaders Face an Uncertain Future As NASA Prepares to Retire Its Final Shuttle, Agency Leaders Face an U...

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TECHNOLOGY

As NASA Prepares to Retire Its Final Shuttle, Agency Leaders Face an Uncertain Future

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U.S. space shuttle Endeavour lifts off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 16.(NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

For NASA, reaching for the stars is imperative, even when government money is hard to come by, political debate is fierce, and sharp policy changes are frequent. And despite Washington's fits and starts, the agency has to plan years into the future--that's the nature of scientific research.

Fifty years after President Kennedy's call to put a man on the moon, the space agency is at a crossroads. NASA is preparing to retire its final shuttle this summer, with no immediate plan to replace the agency's only human space flight program. Amid so much uncertainty--and soul-searching for the agency--NASA scientists still need working plans.

 

Many of NASA's science goals come out of 10-year surveys, which are based on submissions from the broader science community and seek to establish consensus on research priorities. "I believe that a decadal timeline was selected because, for many grand challenges in science, a decade is kind of a minimal amount of time you have to look at to begin to derive some kind of answers," says Elizabeth Cantwell, a National Academies board member, who recently cochaired such a report for NASA.

Presidential terms, however, span eight years at most, Congress changes every two years, and the budget is up for consideration every year. These faster cycles can strain any long-term government project, but especially science programs that require methodical continuity.

'Guided by Science'

 

Did Mars or Venus ever host watery environments that could support life? If so, did life emerge there? How did our largest planets and their satellite systems come together?

These are among the most important questions for NASA's planetary sciences division to consider throughout the next 10 years, according to a new report on priorities for the planetary sciences, which scientists have been touring the country to discuss this spring. Designed specifically to guide NASA policies and programs, the survey was conducted by the National Research Council, which considered 199 white papers submitted by the scientific community as well as issues raised at more than a dozen scholarly town hall meetings.

"What we do must be first and foremost guided by science," Steve Squyres, a Cornell University astronomer who chaired the survey, told a planetary science conference in March.

"This is an extraordinary thing," he said. "It's an instance where a federal agency looks to its constituents, to our community, for actionable advice on what they ought to do."

 

Although the report was based on input from the scientific community, the completed product has to be sold back to those same scientists--the goal of many town hall meetings this spring. Next, the whole package has to be sold to Washington--every year. Squyres asked the scientists at the conference in March, especially those in the districts of lawmakers with appropriations clout, to lobby. "The most important thing that we as a community can try to do is to influence the budget process for the NASA planetary science division," he said. "That means interacting with our congressmen and our senators."

Paul Hertz, chief scientist of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, notes that the science mission doesn't stand alone. "Of course national priorities get added on to the decadal priorities," he says, noting that in 2004, President George W. Bush "adopted a new vision for space exploration, which changed the priorities for NASA and the allocation of money, and of course over the last year or two, things have changed a lot."

Indeed, making long-range plans in a politically shifty environment is no easy task. That point was even more evident in another 10-year study the National Research Council recently conducted for the life and physical sciences research program in NASA's Exploration Directorate. The program deals with science focused on the properties of space and zero-gravity, including their effects on human health.

Unlike most of the 10-year science studies that NASA and the National Science Foundation request, Congress called for this one, and the National Research Council was asked specifically not to consider costs in determining priorities.

"It was a pretty tall hill to climb to put together an integrated portfolio without considering budget in an environment where policy was changing frequently," says Cantwell, the survey's cochairwoman, who is also director of mission development for engineering at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Getting There

Laying out priorities for a decade with uncertain prospects for human space travel also was a challenge. The report, starkly titled "Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration," was written as NASA was winding down its space shuttle program. The last shuttle mission is scheduled to launch at the end of June, bringing to a close three decades of operations and 135 missions. After the shuttle Atlantis returns to Earth, NASA will not for the foreseeable future have a vehicle to carry its astronauts to space.

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