Call it a space journey

Marketplace Staff Apr 26, 2006


KAI RYSSDAL: An unmanned Russian cargo ship docked at the International Space Station today. The first load of groceries the two astronauts have had in three weeks. That, and a new robotic satellite. The Russians are doing all the delivery runs because the space shuttle still can’t fly. And you can bet that was a topic of conversation today up on Capitol Hill. Congress is hammering out next year’s federal budget. And a Senate committee spent the day taking a long hard look at NASA. Marketplace’s Amy Scott has that story.

AMY SCOTT: When Joan Vernikos retired from NASA six years ago, something troubled her.

JOAN VERNIKOS: When I left NASA, I was not replaced. And that was the first signal that started getting me worried.

Vernikos had directed the agency’s Life Sciences Division. She and her colleagues had studied the effect of space travel on humans. Her research on gravity had led to major advances in medicine. Not long after Vernikos left, the entire division was split up, downsized and eventually folded into other programs within the agency. She says that was just the start.

VERNIKOS: Life sciences seems to have taken the brunt. But all of the sciences gradually started getting cut.

Then, two years ago, President Bush made it official.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Today we set a new course for America’s space program. . . .

The president announced his so-called “Vision for Space Exploration.” The plan? To send humans back to the moon and eventually to Mars.

Yet the Administration only offered $1 billion in new funding. The other $11 billion would come from NASA’s existing budget. Science funding is now slated to drop by more than $3 billion in the next five years.

RICHARD ANTHES: This is simply a matter of priorities.

Richard Anthes co-chairs the National Research Council’s committee on earth science and applications from space. He says even before Bush announced his moon-Mars ambitions, NASA’s focus was shifting away from research like Earth observation satellites. That hampers the ability to predict hurricanes.

ANTHES: And to even risk the possibility of a reduction in hurricane warning accuracy or hurricane forecasts, you’d think that that would just not be tolerable.

NASA’s research has helped consumers in other ways too, from computers to non-stick pans to breast cancer detection.

That’s thanks to people like Joan Vernikos, the former Life Sciences Director. Her research on the effect of zero-gravity on the human body helped scientists conclude that prolonged bed rest after surgery can do more harm than good.

Nobel-prize winning astrophysicist Joseph Taylor says many of those discoveries happened by accident, or as an outcome of other research.

JOSEPH TAYLOR: Nevertheless, even the very most fundamental of scientific inquiries has very frequently led to or catalyzed work which does turn out to have very beneficial results for all of society.

The unprecedented challenge of getting humans to Mars will inevitably lead to similar as-yet-unimagined discoveries. But scientists say the funding gap is already discouraging promising students from entering the field. The uproar has forced NASA to revisit its science budget. But Congress is unlikely to add any funding. And at the Senate subcommittee hearing today, administrator Michael Griffin defended the agency’s priorities.

GRIFFIN: I hate to say it, but I’m hear to testify before you that NASA cannot do everything that our many constituencies would like us to do, within our proposed $16.8 billion budget. NASA must go as we can afford to pay across our entire mission portfolio of human space flight, science and aeronautics.

Griffin says, for now, staying ahead in human space flight is a higher priority than the science missions that have been put on hold. Much has been made of China’s lunar ambitions. But Joan Vernikos says, What’s the rush?

VERNIKOS: Any visions of going back to the moon, eventually going to Mars or somewhere else, as the president says, is not a race. It’s a journey. So why are we racing?

Vernikos says Americans can’t afford to win that race if it means losing at science.In New York, I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace.

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