NASA: ups and downs

It was NASA proposal season last month, meant to comment on it, but was so exhausted and pissed off about the whole thing that I needed some space.

A typical proposals is 15 pages of main text; including biblio, bios, associated documents and blurbs the final (electronic) package is typically 40-55 pages.

NASA's budget is a funny thing.
It has the Space Operations Directorate which is basically keeping the shuttle and space station and associated armies of contractors at JSC and KSC in business. $6 billion in round numbers.

Then is has Science, Aeronautics (well, not so much anymore) and Exploration Systems Directorates
Aeronautics is $725 million or so. Exploration is $3 billion and about $5.3 billion for Science.

billion or so for centers, billion or so for assorted cross-agency and admin thingies. All adds up.

First anomaly: the Exploration Systems - developing next generation launchers and preparing for manned Lunar missions, is bundled with the Science and Aeronautics directorates, and those totals are reported together, not with the Space Operations.
If Exploration Systems is to have an cost overrun, the nearest place to dip into is Science, not Space Ops.
This might seem like an illogical arrangement.

Shuttle is currently scheduled to cease operation in late 2010, and the US plans to withdraw from ISS shortly after. This will relieve the pressure on NASA's budget and allow the new Exploration initiative to ramp up; BUT, for various reasons the administration does not want a gap in launch capabilities, so the development of new launchers has been expedited.

However, in a theme which may be repeated, NASA has not been given the resources to actually ramp up Exploration before shutting down Shuttle, so something else has to be cut. At current projections the shortfall is ~ $billion per year, and it will be taken out of Science. Or in budget speak: the projected out year budgets for Science are less than previous projections.

So... a squeeze is on.
The squeeze came at an inopportune time, the NASA "advisory committee" structure was undergoing a temporary rearrangement, and didn't actually so much meet while the cuts were made. So, the cuts were made in nice integral chunks, with little or no actual regard for science priorities or balance across disciplines. People within NASA HQ who were foolish enough to object or try to stop this were fired or reassigned.

So... essentially every new NASA science mission that was scheduled for the next decade is cancelledindefinitely postponed, and the missions due to launch this decade or early next decade are stretched. The R&A programs - the individual investigator grants solicited each year were also butchered. A number of lines were canceled, mostly the bigger ones like instrumentation development and Long Term Space Astrophysics. I count seven lines canceled. What is not so obvious is the savage cut to number of proposals expected to be finded in the lines still open. A single PI grant is $100,000-200,000 per year gross cost, typically. Pays for a postdoc. Success rate for proposals in most lines was projected to be less than 10%.

This is not so good. A small cut in R&A leads to an effective this-year-cut that is three times larger since most lines are three year committments and the ongoing committments must be funded (ok, they don't have to be, they can, and did, cut them after the fact - grants in progress are taking 5-15% cuts in already budgeted amounts; how to pay 85% salaries is not explained).
At the same time, by the way, NASA has made it a priority to increase undergrad and grad education to expand the available young science workforce - who will then be working in the Next Big Computing Thing, or the Next Obscure Technical Financial Gimmick, because there will be no postdocs for them to take after their PhD. But I digress.

So what is going on? Science has $5 billion+ that is more than the entire NSF budget!
Well... there are three divisions:

Universe - $1.5 billion - which does astrophysics, Hubble and other observatories, the Beyond Einstein line of missions and various high energy and astrophysics observatories.

Solar System - $1.6 billion - that is mostly Mars, little bit of Saturn and wotsits.

Earth-Sun: - $2.2 billion - this is solar observatories, climate and earth observations, and an extraordinary fascination with the intricacies of the Earth's magnetosphere.

My main interest is in the "Universe" - which has a problem, common to other divisions, its missions keep going - the satellites don't break on schedule, so they keep requiring operational funding, which cumulates. Hubble is expensive, the upgrades are expensive, and we're spending ~ $200 million per year on preparing for the next refurbishment mission (good) while the shuttle was unavailable (bad).
NGST JWST - the "next Hubble" (not!) has massive cost overruns, most of which are due to delays (like NASA dragging their feet admitting it has to be launched on Ariane) and changed accounting rules (basically NASA now charges itself internal overhead). So something has to give; and the choice was everything - wholesale cancellation of missions or indefinite postponement. PlanetFinders were wiped out, Astrobiology cut in half, all the li'l missions cancelled, Beyond Einstein (which was Presidential Initiative only 3 years ago!) stretched so that one mission is planned in 2016 and another in 2021! Three missions were originally planned to launch much earlier, with 2-5 followon missions on that timescale.
The R&A cuts were well rationalised, by the way, since no missions were planned, there was no reason to fund instrument development or mission related science and modeling. Yes?
I hear, from reliable sources, that when you add up across divisions, the cut to instrument development (new tech for instruments for future missions, not immediate tech for near term missions) is about 70% or more.

So... this is the Plan, per the administration request. Now Congress must act.
First thing they'll do, of course, is to stick in several hundred million dollars of unfunded earmarks, which will destroy a few more science missions.
But, the House subcommittee did report out with extra funding - $10 million for the Terrestrial Planet Finder (up from $0), which would keep the engineering teams on starvation rations for another year, if they haven't completely disbanded already; $15 million to plan for a jovian moon mission (which for some reason NASA won't do); and, $50 million for R&A ! Yay. If treated as funding for this year's grant requests - ie that the higher level of funding will continue - this is ~ 300 additional median PI grants. Or 300 postdocs hired, across all fields of astrophysics, earth science and planetary science.
There are about 50 lines, with each line several million dollars, typically. So we are looking at maybe 6 additional proposals, on average, per line.
So 6 more astrophysics theory postdocs, in total. 18-24 proposals awarded, depending on budget, out of over 100 submitted.

Ah well, better than nothing I suppose, but not as much as needed. Not to mention the absurdity of Congress dictating $10 million line items in a $16+billion budget. That's micromanagement at the less than 0.1% level. If we figure the NASA administrator works standard 250 days per year, 8 hours per day, he can afford to spend about an hour worrying about $10 million funding lines each year.
Do we think the Terrestrial Planet Finder is worth an hour of the NASA administrator's time this year?

There is a very simple overarching problem. NASA is being tasked with very ambitious, large and urgent tasks, and is not being given anywhere near the adequate resources to actually do what they are told to do.
That is the problem. The rest is micromanagement and turf wars at silly levels.

Ah well. I sent in 3 proposals. Was a co-I on another and a collaborator on a fifth.
And that is not counting the mission proposal opportunities, like Hubble, Spitzer and Chandra.
Statistically, there's ~ 50:50 chance that one of the proposals I'm involved with will be funded, at the current projected budget.
Gonna be a painful few years.


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You have all my sympathy. We had to jump through similar hoops with the European Space Agency for two projects, as PI on one. And when we passed the ESA reviews and got a green light, we then had to do the bureaucratic dance all over again with the national space agencies of each team's country to actually get the money. The paperwork was simply ridiculous. But we did get the funding, except for the French team who got stood up by the CNES (argh). On average though I think we're getting a better deal than you guys in the US; your political situation actually seems to be more complicated than that of several very different nations having to agree on a common programme.