NASA's draft science plan looks as if it “was written by a committee without the benefit of a cohesive editing effort,” raising serious concerns about the long-term health of the U.S. space-science effort.

A panel of scientists from fields NASA spends $5 billion a year to address finds that the draft strategic plan fails to tackle the agency's uncertain funding outlook in a meaningful way. This means important exploration capabilities could fall by the wayside and “a generation of scientists” may be lost in some disciplines, they say.

“One of the most fundamental challenges [facing the Science Mission Directorate (SMD)] is the uncertain and apparently decreasing level of available funding for space science in real terms, because this has dramatic and real impacts to plans and execution,” a National Research Council (NRC) panel, convened to review the draft science plan, concluded. “This fiscal reality makes it more important than ever for SMD to have a clearly articulated and consistently applied method for prioritizing why and how its scarce fiscal resources will be apportioned.”

The panel's report, requested by Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, the Hubble-servicing astronaut who runs SMD, underscores the problems NASA faces in sustaining the space-science program it built over 50-plus years. It was prepared by the Space Studies Board panel that was chaired by the University of Michigan's Dr. James P. Bagian, who conducted biomedical research as an astronaut-scientist on two shuttle missions.

The report urges greater attention to “balance” among science missions—by discipline and cost. It also warns against “false expectations” that substantial progress will be achieved without significant resources

Two of the agency's high-profile Mars missions highlight the NRC panel's main points. There is a “general perception that NASA has not been the most reliable partner in international activities,” the panel states in apparent reference to NASA's bailing out of a long-standing cooperative effort with the European Space Agency to cache samples on the red planet's surface for eventual return to Earth.

That budget-driven decision was followed by a drastic cut in NASA's overall planetary sciences budget on the grounds that the discipline would benefit from the nuclear-powered Curiosity rover for many years. This not only hampers international cooperation (AW&ST Nov. 25, p. 46), the start-and-stop approach also upsets the careful division of resources needed among different types of science, with potentially harmful results, the panel found.

The NRC report cites loss of an entire generation of scientists and technical ability in the affected disciplines, along with erosion of national capabilities and leadership. It spotlights aerocapture as an at-risk capability.

That technique, which dips a vehicle approaching from Earth into a planet's atmosphere to slow it enough to go into orbit, could be useful at Mars in the future. Yet the panel found NASA's draft science plan did not link the proposed Mars 2020 mission—essentially a replay of the Curiosity-rover exploration using as much hardware from that program as possible—to the decadal priorities set by a survey of planetary scientists.

At the same time, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (Maven) mission (see illustration), launched Nov. 18, may hold a key to solving some of the problems the NRC found NASA has not addressed. That mission was organized and managed by Principal Investigator (PI) Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado. The NRC panel faulted the draft science plan for slighting the approach in mission planning across NASA's four space-science disciplines—astronomy and astrophysics, planetary science, heliophysics and Earth Science.

“[S]mall-/medium-size PI-led missions [have the potential] to provide a steady stream of new science results at a time when the possibilities for implementing new large missions is severely limited,” the panel states.

So far Maven is on track to stay within its $671 million budget cap, an achievement Jakosky attributes to his willingness to avoid “requirements creep” by adding instruments and engineering capabilities beyond what is needed for its focused mission to study the interaction of the Martian atmosphere and the Sun (AW&ST Aug. 26, p. 40).

A NASA spokesman says the agency requested and respects NRC's opinions and “will review their findings and recommendations over the next several weeks and revise the plan where appropriate” before releasing the final version in February.