The National Aeronautics and Space Administration
(NASA) is reorganized under the FY 2006 budget. The former Office of Space Science
is combined with other offices to form the new Science Mission Directorate. Quoting
the NASA SMD
web page: “The Science Mission Directorate will carry out the scientific exploration
of the Earth, Moon, Mars and beyond; chart the best route of discovery; and reap
the benefits of Earth and space exploration for society. A combined organization
is best able to establish an understanding of the Earth, other planets and their
evolution, bring the lessons of our study of Earth to the exploration of the Solar
System, and to assure the discoveries made here will enhance our work there.”
The directorate has three divisions, Earth-Sun System, Solar System (e.g.
non Earth-Sun research) and the Universe, which encompasses the bulk of the
research carried out by the former Office of Space Science. The impact of this
reorganization on support for science is still being assessed.
- The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) division of Astronomical Sciences (AST) budget is proposed to increase by about 1.8 percent
from a level of $195.1 million to $198.6 million. AST provides funding directly
to astronomical researchers, mainly at universities. Arguably one of the most
important discoveries of our age was made with support from NSF. Dr. Geoff Marcy
and colleagues used NSF support (as well as from NASA and other
institutions) to perfect a new observational technique and use it to detect numerous
planets around other stars.
- The President’s Vision for Space Exploration continues
to be implemented at NASA. Many programs directly related to the vision (e.g.
Mars and Moon exploration) receive increases, while others not so closely aligned
(e.g. solar research) receive decreases.
However, the budget is a mixed bag in that some programs not directly focused
on the Moon or Mars do receive increases. For example, the Beyond Einstein initiative (an effort to understand the Big Bang,
black holes and the mysterious Dark Energy) receives an increase in FY 2006 compared
to FY 2005 from $41.8 million to $55.5 million.
- Astronomy is unique in the science community in the
production of prioritized lists of projects requiring federal support. These so-called
“Decadal Surveys” represent community consensus on the relative importance of
scientific research projects. The surveys are carried out under the auspices of
the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council and sponsored by the
funding agencies. The most recent astronomy and astrophysics survey is entitled
Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium. Two new reports were released in 2002, one that
prioritizes the needs of the Planetary Science community (A New Science Strategy for Solar System Exploration) and the second that covers
the Solar and Space Physics community (Solar and Space
Physics: A Community Assessment and Strategy for the Future). Policy makers take note:
projects requiring federal funding that are not included in these studies (or
follow-up letters from the authoring committees) do not necessarily represent
a community consensus priority. The American Astronomical Society (AAS) has endorsed
all three reports and an interim report addressing progress toward implementation
of the Decadal Survey priority projects.
The sky belongs to all of humanity and astronomy has
a special role to play in bringing knowledge of the cosmos to us all. Beginning
with the earliest recorded history, the sky and the objects it hosts have been
observed, debated and analyzed. Only in modern times have we truly found our place
in the Universe. We live out our lives on a relatively small planet orbiting a
rather normal star in an average galaxy in an accelerating Universe.
Only in 1957 did astronomers determine how the chemical elements
that make up our Earth (and us!) formed in supernova explosions and through stellar
evolution. Since then, astronomers have traced the history of the Universe back
to its very first moments when all matter and light were compressed into a dense
energetic state that rapidly expanded (for as-yet unknown reasons) forming our
Universe. This cosmic explosion is now known as the Big Bang.
Only in the past decade have astronomers discovered
planets around other stars, confirming that our solar system is not unique. Even
more recently, astronomers discovered that the Universe is not just expanding,
but that it is expanding faster and faster – a find that was declared the scientific
discovery of 1998. Amazingly, the newest results indicate that the
nature of roughly 96 percent of the matter and energy content of the Universe
is completely unknown to us. With so much promising work, yet so much
still to learn, each discovery creates new questions and new technological needs.
It is this dynamic that makes astronomy an exciting and vibrant science which
adds meaning to human existence.
NASA provides an increasing amount of the federal funding
(roughly 75 percent in a recent study) for astronomical research in the United States. When the budget for the Science
Mission Directorate at NASA is changed, many American astronomers can be affected
and policy decisions made by the NASA Administrator or the White House can have
unforeseen consequences for astronomy.
While NASA provides observing opportunities for astronomers
beyond the hindering absorption of the atmosphere, the NSF provides approximately
two-thirds of the federal support for ground-based astronomy, including nearly
all support for radio astronomy. The NSF funds the construction and operation of
the U.S. National Observatories, which play a critical role for researchers from
smaller institutions for whom large telescopes are too expensive to construct
and operate. The National Observatories also provide American access to the Southern
hemisphere sky (which cannot be observed from Northern hemisphere locations).
Many important astronomical objects, including the Magellanic Clouds, our nearest
galactic neighbors, reside in the southern sky.
Lately, the Department of Energy has undertaken new
astronomical research projects and the Smithsonian Institution and the Department
of Defense also fund astronomical research, though on a smaller scale than both
NASA and NSF.
A traditional, but arbitrary, split in funding exists
between NASA and NSF with NASA funding mostly space-based observing and NSF funding mostly ground-based. This line is often blurred, since both agencies
support balloon-based observing and other cross-cutting research. NASA does support
ground-based observing when these activities have a direct supporting role for
their space missions. A recent example is the Keck Interferometer
and both agencies are pursuing collaborative efforts such as the National Virtual
Observatory program, which will interconnect databases, telescopic
observations, space mission archives and research tools for astronomy and astrophysics.
These collaborations reflect the way astronomers pursue
their research, using any means necessary to study celestial objects. The Astronomy
and Astrophysics Advisory Committee, a federal advisory committee, meets regularly to
discuss and advise on the best and most efficient ways for agencies to collaborate
on astronomy research.
in the NASA Budget
The overall NASA budget would increase, from a level of $16.1
billion in FY 2005 to $16.5 billion in FY 2006, an increase of 2.4 percent (which
does not include an emergency hurricane supplemental appropriation of $126 million
to repair damage to NASA’s Florida-based facilities). The FY 2006 budget is a
mixed bag for NASA, with a number of programs seeing increases, while others decline.
Within the Science account, the new Universe and Earth-Sun System divisions decline
slightly while Solar System Exploration increases to $1.9 billion. Looking at
the top level, the Science Directorate, which hosts these three divisions, would
fall slightly to $5.5 billion (see Table II-12).
NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe announced in January 2004
that future servicing missions to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST)
would not take place due to an integrated safety assessment. Senator Barbara Mikulski
(D-MD), whose state hosts the Space Telescope Science Institute, called for an
independent review of the decision. A NRC committee was ultimately formed
to assess the options for extending the life of the HST and concluded that the
incremental risk in servicing the HST with astronauts in the space shuttle versus
visiting the International Space Station in the space shuttle was not substantial
and that a robotic servicing mission was more likely to fail to succeed in servicing
the HST than a human-based mission from the space shuttle.
The FY 2006 budget includes only funding to develop an ultimate
de-orbit mission for the HST (it must be de-orbited carefully as not all of the
telescope will burn up upon reentry) and to continue ongoing operations in a way
that optimizes the useful scientific life of the telescope.
Congress has had hearings on this topic and is considering
what course of action to take. Tradeoffs with other missions, should the servicing
mission require support from within existing programs, may require the astronomy
community to revisit their priority setting process. The HST is a household name
across the nation and the public have strongly supported saving the telescope.
Though all astronomers value HST discoveries past and future, community opinion
on servicing is split; if it can be accomplished without undue impact to other
high priority scientific missions, most astronomers would be supportive of servicing.
Under the proposed FY 2006 budget, the newly formed Science
Mission Directorate would decline by $51 million to $5.5 billion. Of direct concern
to the astronomy community, the Universe Research program, which directly funds
astronomy and space science researchers, would decline from $332 million to $316
million. This program supports fundamental research that has led to both technology
development as well as new ideas for large-scale NASA missions. Declines in this
budget line are of great concern to US astronomers. Other key programs facing
declines include the Navigator program, which seeks to discover and understand
planets beyond our solar system (decline of $34.3 million to $199.4 million),
the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA; from $50.9 million
to $48.3 million), HST (from $215.7 million to $190.7 million), the Gamma Ray
Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST; from $107 million to $99.4 million) and the
important Discovery program, which supports innovative proposals from researchers
for major NASA missions (from $125.5 million to $117.9 million). A few programs
receive increases under the proposed budget, including the James Webb Space Telescope
(from $311.8 million to $371.6 million). (For more on the NASA budget, please
see Chapter 10.)
in the NSF Budget
NSF funds astronomy through its Division of Astronomical
Sciences. This funding is split into two basic units, Astronomy
Research and Instrumentation (which funds individual researchers, instrument development
projects and some research centers such as the center for adaptive optics) and Facilities (which supports the National Astronomy
facilities such as the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, National Optical Astronomy Observatoy
(NOAO), National Solar Observatory (NSO), Gemini Observatories and the National Astronomy and Ionosphere
The Astronomy Division budget would increase in the President’s
FY 2006 budget by 1.8 percent to $199 million (see Table
II-7 for details of the NSF budget). The Astronomy Research and Instrumentation
portion of the budget is essentially flat at $84.8 million, with only a small
cut of $0.04 million in research and education grants. The Astronomy Facilities
budget would receive a net increase of $3.6 million to a FY 2006 proposed funding
level of $113.9 million.
The top priority in the Astronomy Facilities budget is the
Gemini Observatory and as such it receives the lion’s share of the Astronomy Division’s
budget increase – an additional $3.7 million is requested to support operations
of the Observatory, including development of next- generation instrumentation
and a partial buyback of the Chilean share of construction costs, allowing American
astronomers greater access to these valuable telescopes. The Gemini increase is
partially offset by a cut of $0.56 million from the NOAO/NSO budget line, mostly
achieved by freezing progress on the Adaptive Optics Development Program.
Astronomy is also supported within the NSF budget both
through the Office of Polar Programs (OPP) and the Major Research Equipment and Facilities
Construction (MREFC) budget line. Cuts in the OPP budget will force a slowing
of progress on a 10-meter telescope at the South Pole and will prevent researchers
from beginning their work using this telescope to study Dark Energy. However,
a new Antarctic instrument, IceCube, is slated to receive a healthy ($2.8 million)
increase through the MREFC budget line to continue construction on schedule. This
novel telescope uses photodetectors embedded in the clear Antarctic ice to observe
neutrinos from distant high-energy astronomical sources and is an expanded and
improved version of the earlier AMANDA observatory. The Atacama Large Millimeter
(ALMA) telescope construction continues to be supported in the FY 2006 budget
from the MREFC line at a level of $49.3 million. ALMA was ranked as the highest
priority project in the MREFC budget. This telescope, an international collaboration,
will be the largest and highest resolution telescope in the millimeter and sub-millimeter
region of the electromagnetic spectrum, allowing it to provide unprecedented views
of the process of star and planet formation, as well as images of some of the
earliest galaxies. ALMA continues to proceed on schedule
for a full operations start date early in 2012.
This year’s budget proposal includes a transfer (at
a loss) of the important polar icebreaker program from the Coast Guard to the
NSF. This transfer, though appropriate as the breakers spend much of their time
supporting research at the poles, is a long-term concern for the agency. Both
icebreakers are aging, and one is in urgent need of refurbishment. The cost of
refurbishing, or more dramatically, replacing these important ships would be a
large budgetary burden on the agency. Although cost estimates are hard to come
by, rough numbers of several hundred million dollars for refurbishment and much
more for construction of a new ship, should raise eyebrows for those who follow
the NSF budget. Should NSF have to shoulder these costs without additional funds
being added to the budget, all science programs, especially those that rely on
the MREFC budget line at one time or another, will be put under significant budgetary
threat. (For more on the NSF budget, please see Chapter 7.)
Astronomy Elsewhere in the Budget
Both the Navy and Air Force fund fundamental astronomical research for a variety
of reasons related to national security. Although exact numbers are not available,
the total amount expended is not as large as either NSF or NASA. The Department
of Energy (DOE) also funds astrophysical research under its Office of Science.
One example is the Supernova Acceleration Probe (SNAP), which would receive $2.9 million in the
FY 2006 budget under the High Energy Physics budget. DOE also plays a critical
role in development and integration of detector technology for NASA’s GLAST mission
and is continuing the construction of VERITAS, a ground-based gamma ray telescope
array south of Tucson, Arizona. The Smithsonian Institution
also supports a wide array of astronomical research through its Center for Astrophysics, including telescopes in Hawaii and Arizona. The Submillimeter Array, an innovative high-frequency radio telescope is
now operational and producing scientific results on the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii and the Smithsonian Institution
continues to support other research through its partnership with Harvard in the
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, home in one way or another to a significant fraction
of the Nation’s astronomical researchers.