Skip to comments.Griffin Tells Astronomers To Lower Expectations
Posted on 01/16/2006 9:53:39 AM PST by Paul Ross
Aviation Week & Space Technology
Griffin Tells Astronomers To Lower Expectations
By Frank Morring, Jr.
LOOKING TO THE STARS
Astronomers in the U.S. can still look forward to a human servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope next year, and perhaps to big observatories on the far side of the Moon some day.
But for the most part, the funding outlook at NASA for space science is tight as the agency shifts its focus to sending humans back to the Moon, meaning near-term priorities like searching for Earth-like planets around other stars will slip, and it will take longer to begin answering new questions like "What is dark energy?"
"NASA simply cannot accomplish everything that was on our plate when I took office last April," Administrator Michael Griffin told the American Astronomical Society (AAS). "In space-based astronomy, as in other areas, we will have to make tough trade-offs between maintaining current missions--of which there are 14 ongoing--and developing new capabilities."
Griffin drew applause when he reminded his audience that he reversed a decision by his predecessor not to send another space shuttle mission to service the Hubble telescope, which continues to produce important new discoveries.
But he cautioned that the final Hubble servicing mission, tentatively scheduled before the end of next year, will be launched only "if at all possible." And he said bluntly that there is no way from an engineering standpoint to mount a robotic servicing mission, as former Administrator Sean O'Keefe opted to do, that could do more than deorbit the telescope safely before it is expected to become uncontrollable.
The fate of the Hubble--and a lot of NASA's other programs--will depend on White House funding decisions due for public release with the Fiscal 2007 budget next month. Griffin conceded, "I do not know in all its details what it will contain," which suggests a debate is still underway within the Bush Administration on how to cover a shortfall of at least $3 billion in the shuttle program (AW&ST Nov. 7, 2005, p. 40).
"By any measure, one would have to say that the growth of science in NASA has been in the 5-7% range, annualized, over the last decade or so, and that's all been great," Griffin said. "We're in a budget environment now where that level of growth can't be maintained, although science at NASA will still have growth."
SOME OF THAT GROWTH will be absorbed by the James Webb Space Telescope, the top space mission in the U.S. National Academies' decadal list of astronomy priorities. Terming the $1.5-billion shortfall in available funding for the mission "under-costing" rather than an overrun, Griffin said his agency has a better handle on the cost of the deep-space infrared observatory. Launch of the Webb telescope has been slipped from 2011 to 2013 to cover the extra cost without hampering its ability to peer back to the earliest galaxies in the Universe, and penetrate closer dust clouds to watch star formation within.
Under questioning from AAS President-elect J. Craig Wheeler of the University of Texas, who collected queries from members, Griffin said the problems with the Webb observatory will force a delay in starting the Space Interferometry Mission (SIM) and its successor, the Terrestrial Planet Finder, both National Academies priorities designed to find Earth-like extrasolar planets.
Griffin noted that President Bush's human-exploration directive has raised concerns in all of the communities of scientists who use NASA systems in their work, and vowed to do what he could to keep the disruption to a minimum.
"Our cost estimates for returning astronauts to the Moon are conservatively structured to achieve our goals within budget," he said. "Also, while we certainly are not claiming cost savings that have not been proven, we very much intend to find ways to reduce the cost of the exploration program through improved technology, commercial involvement and international partnerships."
And in the long term, he said under Wheeler's questioning, astronomers may some day find the Moon a better place to conduct their business than Earth orbit or the L-2 Sun-Earth Lagrangian point where the Webb observatory is bound. The Moon's far side offers a much quieter environment for radio telescopes, and many types of sensors could be laid out in arrays on the Moon for higher-resolution imaging than is possible on Earth.
"I would argue strongly with those who assert that human spaceflight is inimical to science," he said. "Our scientific initiatives go hand in hand with our extended reach into the Solar System. It is not our desire to sacrifice present-day scientific efforts for the sake of future benefits to be derived from exploration.
"A stable platform like the Moon offers advantages in the engineering aspects of astronomy that are hard to obtain in space."
His views on using the Moon as an observatory notwithstanding, Griffin ducked a question from Wheeler on whether it would be worthwhile for U.S. astronomers, working through the National Academies, to reconsider their priorities in light of the new possibilities raised by the exploration initiative, or by recent discoveries.
"I think the astronomy community has to decide for itself whether the priorities have changed enough to warrant doing a decadal survey in an off year," Griffin said.
One thing pushing astronomers to change their priorities is the discovery of a mysterious force driving the expansion of the Universe at a rate that appears greater than can be explained by what is visible to telescopes like the Hubble and the most advanced ground-based instruments. The force, dubbed dark energy, was confirmed after the astronomy priorities for this decade were set. A National Academies panel created for the job stopped short of recommending that new priorities be drafted.
INSTEAD, THE PANEL called for "balanced" planning of future astronomy missions, with a greater role for the U.S. Energy Dept. and greater use of Explorer-class space missions. And it cautioned that slips in programs growing out of the exploration initiative could "adversely affect NASA's ability to generate the kind of transformative science that is the hallmark of the past decades."
NASA is already working with the Energy Dept. to draw up a Joint Dark Energy Mission, for which concepts are due in March. Among them is the SuperNova/Acceleration Probe (Snap), a two-meter space telescope (see artist's concept) that would continue detailed measurements of the Type Ia supernovae that provided evidence the Universe is expanding more rapidly than thought.
But with the science budget already squeezed, and the possibility of more budget cuts in the offing, it is unlikely that new starts like Snap will be funded, regardless of the science they produce. Indeed, senior astronomers like Wheeler, are worried they won't be able to fund graduate students today who will be called on in the future to make sense of dark energy and other new questions.
"We're all holding our breath, waiting to see what the budget's going to be," Wheeler said. "The budget for NASA is probably not going up. The budget for the science division is almost certainly not going up. The question is whether it will go down."
In other words, real science can expect to suffer (as always) because it's important to maintain the illusion of a manned space program.
Wonder if I'm the only person that is completely "mehh" about man returning to the moon?
Really has no interest for me at all. I'd be 1000 times more interested in a robotic probe drilling the ice of Europa and entering the (presumed) ocean below it.
> I'd be 1000 times more interested in a robotic probe drilling the ice of Europa and entering the (presumed) ocean below it.
Why? Man on the moon has the potential of expanding human civilization. Robotic missions serve only two purposes:
1: Preparation for sending Man
2: Pretty pictures.
We can buy anything in America.
Translation: "You can ask for Pluto, but we're gonna hand you Uranus..."
Been there, done that, back in the 20th Century. Manned space exploration should be left to third-world countries like China who feel a need to play catch-up.
America's armchair Captain Kirks need to face up to the fact that it's time to move on. If they want to keep playing, they should play with their own money.
Lower as in Beneath the Moon or Just Over Everest?
Nope. The Moon And Mars boondoggle is going to kill NASA. Anytime the politicians get involved there are big problems.
The exception was the Apollo program, but the bureaucrats weren't entrenched yet and NASA had a blank check to overcome FUBAR's like Apollo 1 and Apollo 13.
YES!! Needs repeating
Low as in the Calypso tune, "How low can you go?"
That goes double for the nutjobs with dreams of colonizing space.
Sub the work out ...save 50% and use that for more projects.
Well the Astronomers should pay their own way also..
Lowering expectations doing the limbo actually means raising them.
They believe they should be in control of space.
With your posture of retreat, it would basically not be a challenge for China to not just "catch-up" but surpass...then actively DENY us access to space.
I know this is too long a view for short-sighted minds to digest...but that is their view.
There are those who get their property tax notification today and immediately begin a rant, but never get around to going down to the tax hearings to get their assessment reduced.
There are some practical things to do, but pointing with dismay isn't one of them.
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