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NASA Research Labs In Need Of Upgrades

May 12, 2010

According to a National Research Council report released on Tuesday, many of NASA’s research labs are old and budget cuts have seriously jeopardized scientific research at the space agency.

A panel of experts appointed by the council said bureaucratic changes mean that staff running the labs have to spend an inordinate amount of time asking for money while their facilities disintegrate.

“The fundamental research community at NASA has been severely impacted by the budget reductions that are responsible for this decrease in laboratory capabilities, and as a result, NASA’s ability to support even NASA’s future goals is in serious jeopardy,” they concluded in the report.

The report does not specify whether NASA should spend any particular amount of money to fix the problems, but does say the agency should shift its emphasis to upgrading the facilities.

The report comes as President Barack Obama tries to push for a new vision of space exploration, including public-private partnerships to replace the government-dominated model.

Obama has asked for a $6 billion increase in NASA’s budget to help ramp up exploration of the solar system and increase Earth-based climate change studies.

NASA commissioned the National Research Council to look at its science labs before Obama’s changes were in place.  The council is one of the independent National Academies of Sciences that advises the federal government on medical and scientific policy.

The panel discovered that NASA has systematically neglected research laboratories in six NASA centers.

“These research capabilities have taken years to develop and depend on highly competent and experienced personnel and infrastructure,” Joseph Reagan, a retired vice president at Lockheed Martin Corp., who helped chair the panel, told Reuters.

“Without adequate resources, laboratories can deteriorate very quickly and will not be easily reconstituted.”

The report showed NASA should spend $2.46 billion in 2009 on maintenance, up from $1.77 billion in 2004.

“A reduction in funding of 48 percent for the aeronautics programs over … 2005-2009 has significantly challenged NASA’s ability to achieve its mission to advance U.S. technological leadership in aeronautics in partnership with industry, academia, and other government agencies that conduct aeronautics-related research and to keep U.S. aeronautics in the lead internationally,” the report reads.

“Approximately 20 percent of all NASA facilities are dedicated to research and development: on average, they are not state of the art: they are merely adequate to meet current needs,” it adds.

“Over 80 percent of NASA facilities are more than 40 years old and need significant maintenance and upgrades to preserve the safety and continuity of operations for critical missions.”

The panelists found a pattern of researchers “expending inordinate amounts of time writing proposals seeking funding to maintain their laboratory capabilities” and then trying to find money in other places.

Image Caption: An aerial view looking northeast towards Cleveland’s Hopkins Airport. This is the NASA John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field, Cleveland, Ohio. Credit: NASA

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