Despite recent successes, is NASA in trouble?


With stories of the Pluto flyby, the in-depth analysis of the dwarf planet Ceres, and the ongoing exploration and search for life on Mars, it might seem as though NASA is at the top of its game right now, and close to recapturing the glory days of its past.

However, BBC News reports suggest that the organization could actually be in serious trouble, and that while the New Horizons mission has been one of its larger triumphs in recent memory, the US space agency itself has faced “upheaval and a funding crisis” since its launch.

“Some of the agency’s robotic exploration projects have been mismanaged and over budget, leading the space agency to cut some of its planetary exploration missions,” the British media outlet said, specifically mentioning the James Webb telescope and Mars Curiosity rover.

Designed to be the successor to the Hubble space telescope, the James Webb telescope was supposed to have been launched in 2011 and cost $1.6 billion. Currently, it is not scheduled to launch until 2018, and the price tag has soared to upwards of $8 billion. As for Curiosity, while the rover has undoubtedly been a success, it was also over budget and three years late.

Delays, cancelled collaborative missions could be warning signs

In a story published back in 2010, Nature called the Webb instrument “the telescope that ate astronomy” and called it “the key to almost every big question that astronomers hope to answer in the coming decades.” Without it, they said, most of the science goals of the decade would be “unattainable.” Since then, its launch has been pushed back seven years (so far).

This sort of thing has become business as usual for the US space agency, former NASA scientist Keith Cowing, author of the blog NASA Watch, told BBC News. “As upset as NASA proclaims to be when these overruns happen, they just go off and do another one,” he said. “It is an ongoing chronic issue with NASA,” Cowing added, calling their financial management “a mess.”

Money issues and other factors have caused some planned collaborations between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) to fall apart over the past few years, the UK media outlet added. Affected missions included a plan to explore the icy moons of Jupiter (EJSM/Laplace) as well as a joint mission to the Red Planet (ExoMars) that the ESA plans to pursue on its own.

“NASA has had a series of successes, notably the landing of rovers on Mars,” Professor John Logsdon of George Washington University told BBC News. “But the planetary exploration program has struggled for adequate funding. Its funding has been cut by between 10 percent and 15 percent, and no flagship missions seem to have been put in place under Obama.”

“The James Webb is a big hiccup in the progress of robotic science missions – we are in this period of re-establishing our human space flight capability and getting ready to explore,” he added. “NASA is recovering and doing well in the missions that it is involved with. So I think the outlook is more positive than not.”

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