Accounting for change

The New York Times reports Monday on how some non-exploration NASA programs, like aircraft flights to monitor tropical clouds, are being threatened by budget changes at the space agency. However, the problem is not just a change in NASA’s priorities given the Vision for Space Exploration (although that is a significant factor), but also the introduction of “full-cost accounting” at the agency. While such accounting is designed to reflect the true cost of programs, the Times reports that “the agency does not always shift money along with this new budget responsibility”, resulting in delays and even cancellation of some programs. Robert P. Kirshner, president of the American Astronomical Society, notes that this change means that any plans for a Hubble servicing mission involving the shuttle now have to account for the full cost of such a mission, but “they don’t charge shuttle trips to the space station in the new way.”

The article also notes some scientists, while personally enthused by the Vision for Space Exploration, are chafing against the “top-down” approach that ignores the research priorities that scientists have laid out in recent years through such mechanisms as the astronomy and planetary science decadal plans. But as Ghassem Asrar, deputy associate administrator for NASA’s science mission directorate, notes, the agency didn’t ask scientists “to pass judgment on the composition of the NASA program.”

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