Roadmaps review

You may recall earlier this year the on-again, off-again strategic “roadmaps” review of NASA programs initiated by former administrator Sean O’Keefe, but sharply curtailed by Michael Griffin shortly after taking office. While some of the roadmaps were curtailed or dropped altogether, the science ones (with the exception of lunar exploration) were completed in May and delivered to the National Research Council for review by its Space Studies Board (SSB), under a Congressional mandate. The SSB completed its review and quietly issued a report on its analysis earlier this month. (How quiet? While the National Academies issued a brief notice about the report’s release August 5, only recently had I found evidence on the SSB’s web site that the report was indeed publicly available.)

In general, the SSB panel charged with the review was pleased with the content of the science roadmaps: “It found that the proposed roadmaps have significant scientific merit and that, with a few notable exceptions, their near-term recommendations are generally consistent with the decadal-scale studies produced by the NRC.” Specifically:

  • The panel was concerned that, for the Mars exploration roadmap, “the scientific goals are poorly linked to the specific missions, which focus on putting humans on Mars.” The panel also wanted to see “clear budget lines” for the Mars Scout program and medium-class missions.
  • For the solar system exploration roadmap, the panel said the NASA needs to make a clearer definition of “habitability”, one of the central concepts of the roadmap, and how they are associated with scientific goals and missions in the roadmap.
  • The panel noted that “a significant issue conspicuously absent in the Universe roadmap is the future of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST).” (Of course, the fate of the telescope was uncertain at the time the roadmaps were completed, and remains so today.)
  • The panel also seemed concerned that too much of the astronomy research described in the roadmaps was focused on astrobiology. “[A]stronomy can and should be more than the search for life,” the report states.
  • The report was limited in its discussion of the earth sciences roadmap, since the NRC’s own decadal survey of the field is ongoing. The panel did urge flexibility in its plans so it doesn’t go off in directions the science community doesn’t find worthwhile, and also cooperate closely with agencies like NOAA.
  • The panel had little criticism of the Sun-Solar Systems Connections panel, other than to caution against an “overly narrow program” of research.

While this report was required by Congress, it remains to be seen if this report will have any effect on NASA’s science programs.

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