Friday, February 17, 2006

Headaches at NASA

It has not been a good couple of weeks for NASA. Things are not going well there. Not well at all. You've probably read about some of the recent problems in the news, but there have been so many, it's hard to keep them all straight.

A few months ago, it was possible to look forward to great things from NASA's scientific research program. Now the outlook is much bleaker.

Let's take the most recent bad news -- such as interference with and censorship of contacts between NASA scientists and the outside world -- first and work backwards.

On Thursday the New York Times ran a story detailing additional incidents of poltical pressure to restrict or alter disclosure of scientific information by NASA scientists: Call for Openness at NASA Adds to Reports of Pressure.
Top political appointees in the NASA press office exerted strong pressure during the 2004 presidential campaign to cut the flow of news releases on glaciers, climate, pollution and other earth sciences, public affairs officers at the agency say.

The disclosure comes nearly two weeks after the NASA administrator, Michael D. Griffin, called for "scientific openness" at the agency. In response to that, researchers and public affairs workers at the agency have described in fresh detail how political appointees altered or limited news releases on scientific findings that could have conflicted with administration policies.

We'll revisit a little later some of the earlier reporting about this topic. But there are a couple of interesting points to take special note of. First, the political watchdogs monitoring NASA's public relations are especially keen to enforce approved terminology. Recall how it quickly became verboten last year to refer to the Administration's proposed "personal" Social Security accounts as "private" accounts. Likewise, the Administration has a strict policy about how global warming can be described:
In a more recent example of possible political pressure at the agency, press officers and scientists cited an e-mail message sent last July from NASA's headquarters to its Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. It said a Web presentation describing the uncontroversial finding that Earth was a "warming planet" could not use the phrase "global warming." It is "standard practice," the message went on, to use the phrase "climate change."

The second observation is that the Administration -- and its Congressional supporters -- has a standard talking point that addresses allegations of political interference with science:
"The issue is where does science end and policy begin," said David Goldston, chief of staff to Representative Sherwood Boehlert, chairman of the House Science Committee.

This talking point goes back at least to the time of the statement in early 2004 of the Union of Concerned Scientists regarding Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policymaking. Immediately after that statement came out, the president's science adviser, John Marburger, started making the rounds to inform everyone who would listen that the Administration, of course, had no problem with scientists talking about science. They simply should not talk about science as it relates to public policy, or vice versa, because so many other factors in addition to scientific facts affect public policy. (For instance, the need of oil companies to make huge profits.)

OK, fine. But clearly the Administation wants to go far beyond a legitimate distinction between scientific facts and public policy. Otherwise, why insist on using the hazy term "climate change" instead of the very factual and accurate "global warming"?

To his credit, Griffin seems to be doing the right things, according to the Washington Post on Friday: NASA to Draft New Rules for Media Office:
NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin said yesterday he has convened a team of scientists and public information officials to draft new guidelines to ensure that news of agency research or events will not be tailored or curtailed to reflect political or ideological bias.

NASA's 2007 budget

And right in the middle of this guerrilla warfare between NASA scientists and the political PR flacks, the Administration's 2007 budget proposal for NASA was announced on February 6.

The Planetary Society, which is certainly not a disinterested observer, but does strongly support both manned and unmanned space exploration and science missions, described the 2007 budget as follows: NASA 2007 Budget: Science Not Just Cut -- It Was Eviscerated. The Society's Executive Director Louis Friedman bluntly explained the problem: "As one Washington official put it, 'Science and exploration have to pay the bill for the shuttle.'"

A further public statement elaborates on criticism of placing funding for the Shuttle ahead of everything else:
Full funding of the shuttle was the result of political pressure from Congressional representatives from areas with vested interests in shuttle work, as well as international pressure from partners focused on completing the space station.

Friedman questioned the realism of the shuttle's even being able to do 17 more flights in any reasonable time period (before 2010) and said, "Investing in the shuttle is an investment in the past. NASA should be investing in the future."

I'll come back to the Shuttle issue at the end of this article.

While The Planetary Society can fairly be regarded as a "special interest group", members of Congress -- even Republicans -- are also quite upset with the NASA budget, as came out in a hearing before the House Science Committee on Thursday: Congress Criticizes NASA Budget Request
The House Science Committee’s Republican chairman and senior Democrat told NASA Administrator Mike Griffin they had little interest in accelerating the U.S. space agency’s exploration plans at the expense of science and research.

Republican committee chairman Boehlert further stated
“I am extremely uneasy about this budget, and I am in a quandary at this point about what to do about it,” [Sherwood] Boehlert told [NASA Administrator Mike] Griffin. “This budget is bad for space science, worse for Earth science, perhaps worse still for aeronautics. It basically cuts or de-emphasizes every forward looking, truly futuristic program of the agency to fund operational and development programs to enable us to do what we are already doing or have done before.”

How convenient that Earth science -- a lot of which involves studies of global warming... oops, climate change -- will be cut way back! Didn't Bush once or twice say that we couldn't be sure about global warming without more studies?

A very good New Scientist article from February 7 echoes the same themes: NASA to divert cash from science into shuttle. It lists some of the key scientific programs that would be delayed indefinitely or simply canceled. Two of these are designed to search for extrasolar planets and would tell us much about the existence of other planets like ours around other stars. These are the Space Inteferometry Mission (delayed at least three years) and the Terrestrial Planet Finder (delayed indefinitely). Two other missions, proposed to be delayed indefinitely, had been designed to study profound questions of cosmology -- the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, to search gravitational waves predicted by Einstein's general theory of relativity, and Constellation-X, to study black holes.

And that's not the end of the list of programs to be cut or delayed. Also on the chopping block are several robotic missions to Mars (the Mars Sample Return Mission and the Mars Telecommunications Orbiter), and a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa, considered by many planetary scientists to be the most likely place in the solar system besides the Earth to harbor some form of life.

FBI investigation of NASA's Inspector General

Continuing back in time a few more days to February 3, the Washington Post ran this rather alarming story: NASA's Inspector General Probed
An FBI-led watchdog agency has opened an investigation into multiple complaints accusing NASA Inspector General Robert W. Cobb of failing to investigate safety violations and retaliating against whistle-blowers. Most of the complaints were filed by current and former employees of his own office.

Written complaints and supporting documents from at least 16 people have been given to investigators. They allege that Cobb, appointed by President Bush in 2002, suppressed investigations of wrongdoing within NASA, and abused and penalized his own investigators when they persisted in raising concerns.

The complaints are being reviewed by the Integrity Committee of the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency. The complaints describe efforts by Cobb to shut down or ignore investigations on issues such as a malfunctioning self-destruct procedure during a space shuttle launch at the Kennedy Space Center, and the theft of an estimated $1.9 billion worth of data on rocket engines from NASA computers.

In documents obtained by The Washington Post and in interviews, NASA employees and former employees said Cobb's actions had contributed to a lack of attention to safety problems at NASA.

The petitioners also said Cobb had disregarded the inspector general's mandate to root out "waste, fraud and abuse" and caused dozens of longtime NASA employees to leave the IG's 200-person office and seek investigative work elsewhere.

What's this? NASA's own inspector general being investigated for malfeasance? Rather incredibly, I haven't seen any further reference or follow-up on this story. I'd surely like to hear more about this!

Among other revelations in this article we find:
Cobb, a 1986 graduate of George Washington University's law school, became NASA's inspector general on April 22, 2002, after working for a year as an ethics lawyer in the office of the White House General Counsel.

Under the Inspector General Act of 1978, the president appoints independent officials to monitor Cabinet departments and larger federal agencies through audits and investigations. Cobb is among four of 11 inspectors general appointed by Bush who previously worked in the White House, and one of nine with no audit experience.

Uh huh. Cobb is a former White House employee appointed as an agency inspector general -- one of nine out of eleven people Bush appointed to such a position without any audit experience. Another Michael Brown. Is anyone surprised?

Political censorship of scientific information

On January 29, the New York Times reported that NASA's top climate scientist, James Hansen, claimed he was being censored by political public relations appointees within NASA: Climate Expert Says NASA Tried to Silence Him. It was this claim that led to the reports of additional scientific censorship discussed at the beginning of this article.

The Hansen story has been extensively reported on, so I'll try to be brief here. As usual, Administration flacks claim that all they want is to avoid the appearance that scientists are speaking for the government when they discuss issues of public policy. But scientific facts inevitably have implications for public policy, so the two cannot be separated as neatly as the flacks would like. However, Hansen responds that this restrictive policy
prevented the public from fully grasping recent findings about climate change that point to risks ahead.

"Communicating with the public seems to be essential," he said, "because public concern is probably the only thing capable of overcoming the special interests that have obfuscated the topic."

Clearly, Hansen isn't neutral about public policy implications of the scientific facts. Although his opinions certainly should not be taken as the official government position, the public interest equally certainly requires that top scientists be allowed to inform the public about scientific facts -- even if these scientists happen to be employed by the government. Here's a New Scientist article on the same story: Top climatologist accuses US of trying to gag him.

Less than a week later, on February 4, NASA administrator Michael Griffin came out strongly in support of his scientists: NASA Chief Backs Agency Openness
A week after NASA's top climate scientist complained that the space agency's public-affairs office was trying to silence his statements on global warming, the agency's administrator, Michael D. Griffin, issued a sharply worded statement yesterday calling for "scientific openness" throughout the agency.

"It is not the job of public-affairs officers," Dr. Griffin wrote in an e-mail message to the agency's 19,000 employees, "to alter, filter or adjust engineering or scientific material produced by NASA's technical staff."

All well and good. But a bit further on in the article was this little tidbit:
In October, for example, George Deutsch, a presidential appointee in NASA headquarters, told a Web designer working for the agency to add the word "theory" after every mention of the Big Bang, according to an e-mail message from Mr. Deutsch that another NASA employee forwarded to The Times.

Hmmmm. A presidential appointee is trying to tamper with scientific documentation in order to advance a religious agenda. How on Earth does that have anything to do with keeping scientists away from meddling with public policy? Might government biologists next be censored when discussing evolution? Yup, could be!

It turns out that this Deutsch guy was also involved with asserting more control over Hansen's public statements:
The Big Bang memo came from Mr. Deutsch, a 24-year-old presidential appointee in the press office at NASA headquarters whose résumé says he was an intern in the "war room" of the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign. A 2003 journalism graduate of Texas A&M, he was also the public-affairs officer who sought more control over Dr. Hansen's public statements.

In October 2005, Mr. Deutsch sent an e-mail message to Flint Wild, a NASA contractor working on a set of Web presentations about Einstein for middle-school students. The message said the word "theory" needed to be added after every mention of the Big Bang.

The Big Bang is "not proven fact; it is opinion," Mr. Deutsch wrote, adding, "It is not NASA's place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator."

It continued: "This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue. And I would hate to think that young people would only be getting one-half of this debate from NASA. That would mean we had failed to properly educate the very people who rely on us for factual information the most."

This produced quite a strong and immediate reaction from the blogosphere, such as this from AMERICAblog: 24 year old Bush political appointee tells NASA to push "intelligent design by a creator". (Very worth reading, as it expands on the global warming issue.)

But the best was yet to come. Blogger Nick Anthis at The Scientific Activist, himself a graduate of Texas A&M (as Deutsch claimed to be), on February 6 revealed that George Deutsch Did Not Graduate From Texas A & M University! So, not only was this Deutsch unqualified for his job, like so many of the Administration's political appointees, he was also mendacious -- like so many of the Administration's political appointees.

Two days later, Deutsch resigned. See here, here, here. Read 'em and weep.

But the scientific censorship story is far from finished (unfortunately). And James Hansen is not letting go of it: Censorship Is Alleged at NOAA (2/11/06)
James E. Hansen, the NASA climate scientist who sparked an uproar last month by accusing the Bush administration of keeping scientific information from reaching the public, said Friday that officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are also muzzling researchers who study global warming.

Russia may beat NASA to the Moon

Let's get on to other problems at NASA. Recall George Bush's grand vision for space exploration -- you know, the one which calls for Americans to return to the Moon by 2020, which Bush grandiosely proposed in his 2005 State of the Union address, which has been such a disaster for NASA's budget, and which wasn't even mentioned in the 2006 State of the Union. Yeah, that grand vision.

Now, it's 2006, so we're not talking about any breakneck crash program. 2020 is fourteen years away. Recall that JFK proposed the first American program to plant our flag on the Moon in 1961. Merely eight years later, in 1969, we were there. But now it's going to take us fourteen years to do the same thing? Even though we designed, built, tested, and flew the whole damn project once already! What happened? Did someone lose the engineering plans, and NASA has to do the whole thing over again from scratch using modern computers? Oh, right. The computers probably run Microsoft Windows. Or maybe Bush plans to put Michael Brown in charge of the project. Nevermind. Forget I even asked.

But here's the really bad news. Russia may already be on the Moon in 2020, waiting for us when we get there: Russia plans mine on the moon by 2020.

Take that with a big grain of salt. But it sure would be funny if it turned out that way, wouldn't it?

The Space Shuttle and the International Space Station

Let's finish up with a few words about the Space Shuttle program, which crashed and burned in the Columbia disaster just over three years ago. The more than $6 billion a year that goes into that program, even though the whole thing will be mothballed in 2010, seems to be sucking all the air out of NASA's budget, so it has to be regarded as a major part of NASA's malaise.

Since that disaster in early 2003, NASA has been able to fly a Shuttle only once, in July 2005. It was discovered that the problem with dangerous shedding of foam insulation that doomed Columbia was still not fixed. The next attempt to get things right is scheduled, at this time, for May. NASA is hoping to pull off at least 17 more Shuttle flights before the program is ended in 2010.

In 2010, the Shuttle program will have been in existence for almost 40 years, not counting preliminary studies. Almost 30 years will have passed since the first orbital flight. Although it's no surprise that the Shuttle will then be considered obsolete and unsuitable for further use, hardly any planning or preparations for a replacement have been done until recently. No one will be surprised if a replacement isn't ready in 2012 or so, as currently planned.

But then, the only mission for the Shuttle or a similar vehicle in this time frame (except, prehaps, one final servicing mission for the Hubble Space Telescope) is completion of the International Space Station (ISS). NASA found that most other missions originally foreseen for the Shuttle, such as launches of satellites and space probes, could be done more cost-effectively and reliably with conventional unmanned vehicles.

As for the Space Station itself, if and when it is completed in 2010, its scientific value remains at least as questionable as it has always been. At present, almost no scientific work is being done on the ISS, because the two-person crew has little time to do anything beyond necessary maintenance. Whether much of anything useful is done once the ISS is completed remains to be seen.

Of course, this whole boondoggle isn't mostly NASA's fault. From the beginning, the main purpose of the ISS has been other than science. The purpose, in part, has been to justify continued funding of the Shuttle, which by 2010 will have consumed about $175 billion. And in turn, the main (though never officially acknowledged) reason for continued funding of the Shuttle has been a combination of (1) furthering the military's desire to ensure its control of near-Earth space, (2) furthering the goal of NASA, the military, and their contractors to keep their spacecraft engineering teams employed, and (3) keeping that stream of funds flowing to the contractors and to politically strategic geographic regions of the country (especially Florida and Texas).


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