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Constellation on the chopping block

What's the big deal?

Background on the Constellation Project

Problems with the program

Time for a change?

Putting the debate in context

Conclusion

References & Links


Comments & questions to:
aledig@macalester.edu

New program, same old problems
Shifting priorities and funding creates unhappiness

"That's why NASA so often looks like it is carrying a broad portfolio of programmes, all of them seeming as though they are on life support." - David Goldston, former Chief of Staff of the House Committee on Science

Despite the promise that this new vision would be a game-changer for NASA, the same problems that have plagued the agency for decades threatened its success almost as soon as it was out of the gate. Beleaguered in recent years by perceptions of underfunding and mismanagement, these same issues continued to crop up.  The technical side of the project was criticized, as the new spacecrafts being designed to replace the aging space shuttles, including the Ares I and V rockets, drew heavily from existing space shuttle technology, leading some to say that the agency wasn't being ambitious enough ( "Rebel Engineers Sit With NASA to Chart Future of Manned Space.") Another point of controversy was that funneling such significant sums of money to the goal of human spaceflight and the re-ordering of priorities toward that end imperiled the other branches of NASA’s and general space research. President Bush’s Vision included the goal of completing work on the International Space Station by 2010, which might seem like good news to researchers whose work depends on experiments on the ISS, but the results were otherwise. The ISS was to be devoted to projects related to human spaceflight and the mission to Mars, and NASA departments overseeing physical and biological sciences were to be reorganized, leaving scientists working in those areas in a tight spot; it seemed if work didn’t fit within the criteria, it wasn’t going to get done (“NASA’s Plan for Station: From Lemon to Lemonade”).

The unhappiness resulted from a mixture of shifted priorities and funding. The Bush administration backed up their vision of new spacecrafts and more people in space with an increase of $12 billion for exploration over five years, and funding for the agency, which had fallen 5% from 1992 to 2000 actually increased about 3% per year from 2000 to 2005 (“Fact Sheet: A Renewed Spirit of Discovery”). But by 2006, there was already concern at the slashes in basic-science funding being made to accommodate the human spaceflight push. Lennard Fisk, a space scientist at the University of Michigan, was quoted talking about these problems in a Science article reporting on NASA funding woes. “There is a mismatch between what NASA has been assigned to do and the resources with which it has been provided,” he said, reflecting frustrations that the agency had money to do the more traditional research projects or to embark on an ambitious spaceflight expansion, but not both ("Report knocks NASA funding.")

These varied goals, of maintaining old aspects of the Agency while adding others, all without breaking the bank, have shown to be problematic. In a column in Nature, David Goldston, a lecturer at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs who worked at Chief of Staff of the House Committee on Science and helped write and oversee the bill’s progress, wrote that Congress’ paralysis and refusal to make fundamental changes to NASA’s goals, for any number of reasons, place the agency in an untenable position. The competing factions and their conflicting agendas – cut costs, expand some areas without cutting others, protect jobs and research centers, and so on – make efforts to change NASA’s setup or goals radically so hard. He wrote, “That’s why NASA so often looks like it is carrying a broad portfolio of programmes, all of them seeming as though they are on life support" (“Party of one: Washington, we have a problem".) 





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Last updated:  5/7/2010

 


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