I haven't spent much time in that den of iniquity, DC, lately
but... third hand rumours percolate back to me, and if I can't sleep, neither should you
a few weeks ago, a commenter said something to the effect that "NASA would do nothing until JWST was out of the way" - I thought at the time it was over pessimistic, but now I'm not so sure, maybe he knew something I did not...
I hear there was a little to-do at a Big Center, and basically there will be a handful of SMEX and maybe one MIDEX or Discovery class mission for astrophysics (aka "universe"), but no more Big Missions. Ever.
So no Beyond Einstein, forget that committee thing they just did, no Planet Finders, no Interferometers, nothing.
I'm guessing the SMEX's will then be "keep the labs alive" missions, presumably first an x-ray one to keep one or two labs buliding detectors, and then one infrared mission - the third SMEX slot would then be a helio mission.
This is slightly weird, if true, - the little missions are good, they need to be sprinkled in - but the big missions do serious science, and keep whole communities alive, you can't boom-bust groups indefinitely by throwing them occasional small missions, not enough continuity, too much of a learning curve to climb each time - unless you pick just one or two sub-fields to stick with and dump the rest.
The other weirdness is that NASA did four flagship missions in a 15-20 year window, which coincided with some hard times for launchers and major flagship planetary missions. At the same time that they did a lot of Earth observing, midsize missions and small missions.
And the Science budget is supposed to be bigger overall for the next decade.
Keeping HST and Chandra running costs, so does building JWST, but the numbers don't add up, especially with ongoing cuts in Earth observing as well as Astrophysics.
Now, there have been some overruns in Exploration Development (the development of launchers and vehicles for the Moon mission), but that is not enough to account for the missing money - the discrepancy between the projected Science budget and plans, and the new rumour of sharp descoping.
So... one infers that large new overruns are creeping up on us and Science is to be raided. Big time.
That is the only thing that makes sense from the partial information I hear.
But, the new NASA appropriations bill is supposed to restore the "wall" between Science funding and Exploration - in the future NASA will have discretion to move $ between Exploration (shuttle/space station) and Exploration Development - but not Science and Aeronautics.
Which brings me to the other, third hand, hint of a whisper of a word, that I heard: which is that NASA, taking a lead from above, is intending to ignore Congress.
That is to say, the nice five year projections and project schedules and line items are meanngless, there is perceived intent at high NASA levlels to effectively reappropriate the funding to their priorities, without running it by Congress - this is presumably to seal the Moon mission stuff into place. Some of this is already happening, if you look at NASA non-cooperation with recent attempts at Congressional oversight and external reviews. NASA is blowing off requests for info and refusing to provide data for external agencies.
This sort of makes sense under two lines of thinking: one is that the Executive effecitvely sets budgets now - there is a long term Congressional authorization plan, and the White House/OMB proposes an annual budget that is at or close to that total, but the actual budget returned by Congress deviates very little from the White House budget - maybe ~ 5% tweaking - never major changes in recent years.
Now, this used to be because of pre-budget negotiations, but now it is just a force majeure ploy by the Executive. So why should an Executive agency pay any attention to Congressional line items? All that matters is the total.
Secondly, the current Executitve, and its loyal agency heads, clearly actually believe in the "unitary executive" - they want to unroll 350 years of political rebalancing and go back to 16th century European royalty as the model - infallible rulers with absolute authority and immunity.
There's only one more real budget cycle to go in the current administration, so none of this may matter, depending on what happens in '08 - but this is not playing nice, and one might naively think that at some point Congress would take exception to the cumulating in-your-face dares, and actually do something about it.
Or I could be wrong, and this could all be Chinese Whispers and idle errant gossip.
We'll find out the hard way.
Welcome to MSF 3.0.
1.0 was Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab, which made vast fortunes for the new industry of manned space flight.
2.0 was STS & ISS, existing solely because the same industry wanted to keep making vast fortunes.
And now 3.0 will suck up all the money and pour it into the same filthy-rich hands. It doesn't matter if there is no science return, and it won't matter if the missions never even fly -- the money will all get spent on the ground.
Certain doom tastes bitter, doesn't it?
DC wasn't so bad. Scientists are treated like a movie stars, dozens of people line up to take their photo and learn about their projects...Must visit more often. Again your coverage of NASA issues is appreciated.