The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

CEV/LSAM illustration
As NASA works to carry out the Vision for Space Exploration, it has to strike a balance between the needs and desires of both human spaceflight and robotic space science missions. (credit: NASA/John Frassanito and Associates)

What’s a space agency for?

Last Monday was D-Day—or, perhaps more accurately, B-Day—for NASA: the day the administration released its proposed fiscal year 2007 (FY07) budget for the space agency. As is always the case, the budget had its share of winners of losers. While NASA overall got a 3.2% increase to $16.8 billion (closer to 1% when supplemental funds for hurricane relief are included), that increase was not spread evenly over the agency’s programs. While Exploration Systems got an increase of nearly 30%, science programs got an increase of only about 1%, while aeronautics research was cut by over 20%. Those changes, administration and NASA officials said, were necessary to ensure the continued development of key exploration programs like the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) while accommodating higher-than-expected costs for the final years of the shuttle program.

While these budget figures were not terribly surprising—NASA administration Michael Griffin had warned weeks earlier that science programs would get a much smaller increase in the FY07 budget than they had seen in previous years—there was still a strong reaction to the proposed budget, particularly among supporters of NASA’s science programs. The Planetary Society was particularly critical of the budget; in a press release, the organization claimed that the budget “seriously damages the hugely productive and successful robotic exploration of our solar system and beyond.” Planetary scientists are concerned about both the FY07 budget proposal as well as NASA’s FY06 operating plan, released last week as well; the two cut funding for solar system research by a total of 25 percent from what was originally allocated in the FY06 budget. In a statement, Congressman Sherwood Boehlert, the chairman of the House Science Committee, said he was “greatly concerned” about the NASA budget, particularly “the slowed growth for NASA’s space and earth science programs.”

According to The Planetary Society, the FY07 budget proposal “seriously damages the hugely productive and successful robotic exploration of our solar system and beyond.”

These cuts, or at least reduced rates of growth, come at a time when NASA’s robotic space sciences programs are enjoying considerable successes. Since the first of the year NASA has celebrated the successful return of the Stardust comet sample mission, the launch of the New Horizons mission to Pluto, and the second anniversary of the landings of the Mars Exploration Rovers, which continue to explore the Martian terrain. Even before the release of the FY07 budget proposal last week, some have questioned whether NASA has its priorities right: should it be spending billions of dollars a year on human spaceflight—shuttle, ISS, and the new exploration program—when it gets a far greater return from robotic spaceflight? This may look like a reprise of the old “humans vs. robots” argument that has plagued government space programs for decades (see “The new humans vs. robots debate: introducing the FH Prize”, The Space Review, this issue), but at its core is a basic, and very important, question: what is the primary purpose of NASA?

Humans vs. robots redux

The latter half of January offered a nexus of events, past and present, which resurrected the debate over the roles of humans and robots in space exploration. In addition to the launches, returns, and anniversaries mentioned above, mid January saw the second anniversary of the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), late January marked the 20th anniversary of the Challenger accident, and a few days later, February 1 marked the third anniversary of the Columbia accident. That combination of events led a number of editorial writers to compare the benefits and successes of robotic missions versus the cost and danger of human missions.

“It’s a reminder that unmanned space travel can be as fruitful as manned travel,” the Des Moines Register wrote in a January 17 editorial, after the successful landing of Stardust’s sample capsule. “It’s cheaper, safer and just as exciting. A spacecraft delivered solar sprinklings to curious, 21st-century humans—without risking human life.” The Seattle Times, in an editorial the following day, picks up on the same theme of safety: “Opportunities and dangerous initiatives beyond human limits reinforce concerns about sending human explorers into ever-more complex missions. In recent years, the Space Shuttle program downshifted into potentially dangerous resupply runs with vague scientific rationales.”

Other editorials, published before the release of the FY07 budget last week, saw NASA’s robotic space science programs under threat from the shuttle and other human spaceflight efforts. “Both Stardust and New Horizons have survived cost-cutting at NASA necessitated by its new mandate from President Bush to plan manned flights first to the moon and then to Mars,” claimed the Boston Globe in a January 23 editorial. That allegation is a bit of a stretch: by the time the Vision for Space Exploration was announced in January 2004, NASA had finally agreed to support funding for New Horizons, after Congress was forced to step in and add funding for the program in previous budgets. Moreover, Stardust was launched a full five years before the VSE’s unveiling.

“Since going to the Moon, human beings have done nothing of scientific consequence in space: robots are the great space explorers now,” wrote a reporter for The Times of London “Robots have made almost every significant discovery of the space age.”

The Los Angeles Times took an even more severe tack in a January 22 editorial. “Griffin should remember that NASA’s greatest moments in recent years have all involved robotic, unmanned missions and space telescopes,” the editorial claimed. “About two-thirds of NASA’s 2006 budget will be spent on manned spaceflight programs. That money will come at the expense of more scientifically worthy (not to mention cheaper and safer) unmanned space exploration and astronomy, and the under-funding of these programs promises to get worse.”

Criticism of NASA’s human spaceflight and praise of robotic missions has not been limited to the United States. In an essay published in the January 30 edition of The Times of London, science reporter Mark Henderson lambasted NASA for its focus on the space shuttle and future human space exploration in favor of robotic missions. “By refusing to cut its losses on the shuttle when Challenger blew up, Nasa diverted vast resources away from a field in which it truly excels,” he wrote. “Since going to the Moon, human beings have done nothing of scientific consequence in space: robots are the great space explorers now. Unmanned probes can be dispatched farther and faster than astronauts, and no one dies when they fail… Robots have made almost every significant discovery of the space age.”

Science vs. human exploration

These editorials all seem to follow the old argument that robots are better, cheaper, and safer means of exploring the solar system than humans. However, buried in that debate is a deeper issue that is almost never brought up in superficial newspaper editorials and other commentary: what is NASA’s underlying mission? There is an unstated assumption among just about everyone who engages in this debate—either in favor of human or robotic missions—that NASA’s purpose is some sort of space exploration, but one that is rarely defined in more specific language. That nebulous notion of “exploration” means different things to different people.

To many, particularly those in the scientific community and their supporters, space exploration is equated with space science. As one participant in a recent discussion about NASA on the FPSPACE mailing list put it:

If I had my druthers, I’d cut back on Shuttle flights before space science missions. I suspect that a lot of folks would agree with that opinion. I’d cut back on the CEV before space science, too. Not as many would agree with me there. I think space science is more important because ultimately space science missions mean more. Look what HST, for example, has done for our understanding of the universe!

One phrase encapsulates that entire argument: “Space science missions mean more.” Mean more to whom, though? Certainly to scientists who work on such missions, and also to many space enthusiasts who keep close tabs on the progress of the Mars rovers and check the Cassini web site daily for new images. Space science also matters to the companies that build the spacecraft and instruments used on those missions, although such programs are typically not a major profit center. But what about the general public? There’s certainly been strong public interest in robotic missions ranging from the Hubble Space Telescope to the Mars rovers. However, how much of that interest is rooted in a genuine interest in the scientific goals and results of these missions, versus a passing interest in the top-level science (such as “Was there, or is there, life on Mars?”) or simply a desire for pretty pictures of planets and galaxies?

Whatever those public perceptions may be, space science at NASA, despite its recent budget woes, is still doing very well compared to other scientific research. The FY07 budget proposal calls for spending $5.33 billion on all science programs at the agency, including $1.61 billion on solar system exploration and $1.51 billion on astronomy (the remaining $2.21 billion will go to earth sciences programs.) By comparison, the entire FY07 budget proposed for the National Science Foundation (NSF) is just over $6 billion, of which $4.33 billion will be spent on “research and related activities” and $190 million on “major research equipment and facilities construction”. That budget takes into account a 7.9% overall budget increase for the agency, the beginning of an effort to double the NSF budget over the next ten years as part of the Administration’s new American Competitiveness Initiative (an effort from which NASA was excluded.) In other words, the amount NASA proposes to spend on space sciences in 2007 is nearly three-quarters the total NSF budget for research, a budget that includes money for a wide array of math, science, and engineering projects (including about $200 million for astronomy.) Although the NSF is not the only other agency that funds scientific research, one can make the argument that space science is funded disproportionately to its importance vis-à-vis other scientific endeavors, keeping in mind that NSF supports, among other work, research in nanotechnology, information technology, and cybersecurity.

Whatever those public perceptions may be, space science at NASA, despite its recent budget woes, is still doing very well compared to other scientific research.

If space science is really that important, then perhaps a case can be made for focusing primarily, if not entirely, on robotic missions to explore the solar system. Robotic missions are indeed cheaper and safer than human space missions, and can perform outstanding science in many circumstances. Many proponents of human exploration argue that there are some things that require the intelligence, intuition, dexterity, or other attributes that only humans can provide, or can do far more quickly than a robot. However, something like the Pareto principle may be applicable here: the vast majority of the scientific objectives of a human mission could be performed for a fraction of the cost by employing robots. That might be good enough if there’s a strong aversion to the costs and risks of human exploration.

This, though, gets back to the central question: is space science the primary mission of NASA? Is the space agency, in fact, just a science agency that specializes in a few fields? To help answer that, one can look back at the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, the legislation that authorized the creation of NASA. The NASA History Office recently posted an annotated version of the original legislation and its amendments over the years. Indeed, one of the objectives of the nation’s space program, as specified in the Act, is “The expansion of human knowledge of the Earth and of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.” However, that is only one of nine objectives listed in that section of the Act; others range from “The development and operation of vehicles capable of carrying instruments, equipment, supplies, and living organisms through space;” to “The preservation of the United States preeminent position in aeronautics and space through research and technology development related to associated manufacturing processes.” That’s a lot more than just space science.

Most in the space community would argue that NASA would be best served by a balance of both human and robotic space missions. “Simply stated, the Vision for Space Exploration asserts that the proper goal of the nation’s space program is that of human and robotic exploration beyond low Earth orbit,” Michael Griffin said in a National Space Club speech Thursday. Even The Planetary Society, speaking out in opposition to NASA’s planned FY07 budget cuts, noted that there’s a role for human spaceflight, if properly focused. “To justify the cost and risk of human space flight, we need to be exploring other worlds and searching for extraterrestrial life,” said society vice president Bill Nye.

The challenge, though, is finding that balance and then selling the program to all the stakeholders: scientists, engineers, businesspeople, members of Congress, and the general public. For example, it’s tempting to simply zero out the shuttle and station programs in the NASA budget: the shuttle, after all, is due to be retired in a few years, and ending the program now would save billions of dollars in FY07 alone that could be used to both increase space science funding and accelerate aspects of the VSE. Of course, ending the shuttle program now would put much of NASA and the aerospace industry into chaos, and would certainly be opposed by many members of Congress whose jurisdictions would be adversely affected. Moreover, terminating the shuttle program now, before key European and Japanese ISS modules are launched, would likely scuttle any chance for international cooperation in the VSE, something that Griffin acknowledged is necessary given the long-term limitations of NASA’s budget and capabilities. So, like it or not, we seem to be stuck with the shuttle, and its accompanying budget complications, for a few more years.

“In order to maintain momentum for this multi-generational journey, we must have a broad base of support among the American public. Exploration must become, in the public mind, nothing more or less than ‘what NASA does,’” Griffin said last week.

Another challenge NASA faces is convincing people of the utility of human space exploration. For the last quarter-century human spaceflight has been equated with going around in circles—literally—with the shuttle and, more recently, the ISS. That explains many of the objections in the media to human spaceflight: the rationale for, and the results from, such missions have been weak. As the Washington Times put it in a January 18 editorial, “…robots should not be hogging all the glory. NASA must expedite the shuttle’s phaseout and get to the business of realizing the president’s goal of putting a man on Mars.” That rationale for human spaceflight should extend beyond scientific utility alone: commerce, national security, and even the need for humanity to become a “multiplanet species” have been put forward as reasons for sending humans to the Moon and beyond. Weaving them into a compelling argument, though, remains difficult.

Griffin appears aware of the need for public support for the robotic and human aspects of the VSE. As he put it in his National Space Club speech last week:

In order to maintain momentum for this multi-generational journey, we must have a broad base of support among the American public. Exploration must become, in the public mind, nothing more or less than “what NASA does.” I believe that the greatest contribution that NASA makes in educating the next generation of Americans is providing worthy endeavors for which students will be inspired to study difficult subjects like math, science, and engineering because they too share the dream of exploring the cosmos. Space exploration is the most technically challenging endeavor that nations do, and it is also one of the most exciting and inspirational. I continue to be awed by rocket launches, even though I’ve seen dozens. I’m awed by pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope of galaxies colliding and gaseous nebula forming new stars. I’m awed by the bravery of our astronauts. I’m amazed by the insights our scientists discover about our home planet, and what they find out about other planets in our solar system. We need to share this sense of awe with the broader public.

Griffin later noted that such efforts to “share this sense of awe” with the public may not be necessary, since NASA already enjoys a high level of support from the public, particularly at its current funding levels. But, he adds, “we cannot take it for granted. We must speak clearly and openly to the American people about the risks and rewards of space exploration and scientific discovery.” Doing so in a manner that strengthens support for both human and robotic spaceflight, for scientific research and other applications—in effect defining the purpose of NASA—may prove to be one of the biggest challenges in the execution of the Vision for Space Exploration.