NASA administrator Mike Griffin and the astronomical community have not had the best of relationships since Griffin became administrator nearly three years ago: astronomers are upset at budget cutbacks in various missions and research programs, while Griffin argues that such programs get plenty of funding and the real problem has been programs with unrealistic budgets (a problem he called “undercosting” two years ago.) The latest volley in this debate took place yesterday when Griffin delivered a speech at the American Astronomical Society conference in Austin, Texas, warning astronomers that there would be more problems ahead for NASA’s astronomy programs.
After some platitudes about all the great things Hubble and other NASA missions have done to advance our knowledge of the universe, Griffin focused on a couple of specific issues, starting with the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS). Griffin noted that the FY08 appropriations bill conference report included a provision directing NASA to study ways of delivering the AMS to the International Space Station. Griffin said that NASA has studied ways other than the shuttle to get the AMS to the station, but those alternatives would cost about $400 million. “NASA lacks the budget allocation for such a mission, so, should it be directed by Congress, it would have to ‘come out of hide’. Astrophysics hide,” he warned. Griffin said he would ask the National Academies to study the scientific priorities of NASA’s Beyond Einstein program of astrophysics missions, such as the Joint Dark Energy Mission, and compare them to the scientific priority of the AMS.
Griffin also addressed the Space Interferometry Mission (SIM), which got a boost in the budget bill with additional direction to NASA to begin the “development phase” of SIM. Griffin was particularly critical of this move, saying that SIM was another flagship-class mission that the agency could not afford on top of its one current flagship mission, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which takes up 60 percent of the NASA astrophysics budget. “If we initiate SIM now, we will have to delay JWST or GLAST [a gamma-ray telescope scheduled for launch in 2008] or cancel Explorers to fund it,” he said, blaming “external advocacy” for the decision to increase funding for SIM in the appropriations bill. “If it stands, then the mission will be executed, and the remainder of the astrophysics portfolio will suffer. I hope this is what you want, because it appears likely to be what you will get.”
Griffin then stepped back and took on a broader issue: a lack of perceived appreciation among the astronomical community regarding the challenges NASA is facing overall. Griffin said that, while President Bush had promised an additional $1 billion for NASA over the 2005-2009 period when he announced the Vision for Space Exploration, “about two weeks after I was privately informed that I had been selected to be the new Administrator, that increase was rescinded and, further, an additional $2 billion dollar reduction incurred.” In addition, Griffin said he had to work make sure the shuttle and ISS programs were properly funded “rather than allowing a budgetary sham to be continued.” All that resulted in almost $12 billion in budget reductions and unplanned expenses from FY2005 through 2012.
Because of those budget pressures, Griffin is not sympathetic to those who complain about cutbacks in astronomy programs at the agency. “Few scientists seem to know, or care, that the human spaceflight community has lost a third of its planned flights to the ISS, that we are facing a five-year gap with no human space launch capability at all, that aeronautics is today operating at budget levels well below the historical average, or that technology development at NASA has been reduced to minimal levels,” he said. He singled out in particular criticism from the scientific community about the utility of the ISS. “Like it or not, the Space Station is a feature of American space policy. At this point, the failure to recognize that, accept it, and deal with the consequences in a mature fashion consigns one, in my mind, to the ‘kids table’, while the adults converse elsewhere.”
Griffin asked astronomers to put their own self-interest aside in favor of supporting NASA in general, arguing that such an approach would benefit them as well. “Imagine, if you will, the increased support for NASA – all of NASA – that could result if science community leaders utilized their prestige and their talent for advocacy to promote all of NASA, and not just the individual missions and portfolios of greatest interest to them. Imagine if we put aside self-interest, and all hung together.”
It’s not clear that Griffin’s request is going to win over many people in the community, though. Phil Plait of “Bad Astronomy” fame, who was in attendance at Griffin’s talk, complained about Griffin’s tone: “I must admit that his exasperation does seem a little peevish as opposed to being constructive.” Another attendee noted, “I get the strong feeling that he sees us as the enemy, as children, and as people who need to be scolded and put in our place. I can hear astronomers behind me muttering about how they can’t believe the attitude we’re being addressed with.” Universe Today did note that Griffin’s speech was followed by town hall meeting with better news for scientists, as associate administrator Alan Stern explained how the agency had adjusted its mission planning in light of the budget. Stern, though, wasn’t expecting to get more money in the near future: “[H]ope is not a strategy. We can hope that the Science Mission Directorate’s budget will be increased, but that’s not a strategy.”