Decadal Surveys Front and Center at House Hearing

Decadal Surveys Front and Center at House Hearing

The Decadal Surveys produced by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine were front and center at a House hearing today on NASA’s science programs.  Decadal Surveys are highly respected by NASA and Congress because they represent a consensus of the scientists engaged in each of NASA’s space and earth science disciplines on the top scientific questions that need to be answered and the missions to find those answers. Executing those missions is not always straightforward, but witnesses urged that the priorities be followed.

Decadal Surveys are conducted every 10 years (a decade) by experts who volunteer their time to serve on committees established under the aegis of the National Academies.  The five Decadals for NASA’s science programs are in astrophysics, planetary sciences, earth science and applications from space, solar and space physics (heliophysics), and biological and physical sciences in space.

The space subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee held a hearing this morning on NASA’s science portfolio.  Committee members and witnesses applauded the Decadal Survey process for setting science priorities.

(L-R): Thomas Zurbuchen (NASA), Chelle Gentemann (Earth & Space Research), David Spergel (Princeton), Mark Sykes (Planetary Science Institute). Screengrab from House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing June 11, 2019.

Thomas Zurbuchen, the head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD), said NASA is committed to a “balanced and integrated science program that is informed by the decadal surveys.”

Earth & Space Research’s Chelle Gentemann, co-chair of the National Academies’ standing Committee on Earth Sciences and Applications from Space (CESAS), pointed out, however, that the Trump Administration is trying to kill two of the missions recommended by the 2007 ESAS Decadal Survey:  PACE and CLARREO-Pathfinder.  She repeatedly stressed the need to implement the “program of record” stemming from that and its successor report in 2017.  Indeed, Congress rejected the Administration’s proposal to cancel those and other NASA earth science programs in FY2018 and FY2019.  The House Appropriations Committee also rejected it for FY2020.  The Senate committee has not acted yet.

The Administration also wants to terminate the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), the top priority for a large space telescope in the most recent astrophysics Decadal Survey.  Like the earth science programs, Congress has rejected that proposal so far.

Princeton’s David Spergel, a former chair of the Academies’ Space Studies Board that oversees these reports, commended NASA for continuing the mission “enabled” by congressional support. (He is co-chair of WFIRST’s science team.)

Spergel compared the Decadal Surveys to blueprints for building the great medieval cathedrals.  “NASA science has thrived by being guided by these plans.”  He urged the committee to implement the priorities in all the Decadal Surveys and expressed concern that high priority science might lose out to lunar research because of the Artemis program to return humans to the surface of the Moon by 2024.  The planetary science Decadal Survey’s top priorities are missions to study the habitability of Mars and Europa, not the “lifeless Moon.” “I’m concerned that high priority SMD programs will be terminated to enable lower priority science and accelerating the lunar program.”

NASA has been directed by the White House to accelerate plans to return astronauts to the surface of the Moon by 2024 instead of 2028.  The program was recently named Artemis (Apollo’s twin sister).

Mark Sykes of the Planetary Science Institute supported science in support of human exploration of the Moon, but cautioned that human operations could negatively impact scientific studies of the Moon’s atmosphere in particular and that must be mitigated.  As for the planetary science Decadal Survey, he urged that attention be focused not only on the “bright shiny objects” of big missions, but “the little stuff, too.”  That includes recommendations on resources needed for research and analysis and ensuring a balanced portfolio of large, medium and small missions.

Sykes also emphatically told the committee that Congress should reject language proposed by the Administration to allow the NASA Administrator to shift money from other parts of NASA into the Artemis program.

Committee members asked where the United States stands in comparison to China and Europe in space science research.  Spergel, Gentemann and Sykes all noted Chinese advances in astrophysics, earth science, and robotic lunar exploration.  Sykes said that he does not necessarily view China as a competitor, however. “I don’t see China as a threat. I see them as a potential partner in a lot of these areas.  A partner for advancing what we want to do. I think it’s a mistake to look at them as a boogeyman.”

Zurbuchen stressed that “we ARE the leader” and want to remain that way, but science can bring countries together to work on problems that “transcend boundaries” and make us better as humans.

This article has been updated.

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