May 12, 2010 NASA's abilities to meet major mission goals such as advancing aeronautics, exploring the outer planets, and understanding the beginnings of the universe are being seriously jeopardized by a steady and significant decrease in the agency's basic research capabilities, says a new report from the National Research Council. Congress and NASA should provide the support necessary for needed equipment and services to conduct fundamental high-quality research.
"Solid basic research has always been a critical component for advancing NASA's missions," said John T. Best, co-chair of the committee that wrote the report and technical director of the Plans and Programs Directorate at Arnold Engineering Development Center, Arnold Air Force Base, Tennessee. "To ensure future success, it's imperative that NASA restore and maintain its basic research laboratories."
The report examines laboratories at Goddard Space Flight Center, Glenn Research Center, Langley Research Center, Ames Research Center, Marshall Space Flight Center, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. With the exception of a new science building at Goddard, over 80 percent of the research laboratories at these facilities are more than 40 years old and need significant annual maintenance and upgrades. Laboratory equipment and services are inadequate to address immediate and long-term research needs, and the agency is increasingly relying on contractors to support the labs and facilities.
"These research capabilities have taken years to develop and depend on highly competent and experienced personnel and infrastructure," said Joseph B. Reagan, co-chair of the committee and retired corporate vice president, Lockheed Martin Corp., Bethesda, Md. "Without adequate resources, laboratories can deteriorate very quickly and will not be easily reconstituted. Yet despite all the challenges, we found the majority of researchers remained dedicated to their work and focused on NASA's future."
NASA's deferred maintenance budget has grown from $1.77 billion in 2004 to $2.46 billion in 2009, presenting a "staggering" repair and maintenance bill for the future, the report says. Facilities typically require more maintenance than current funding permits, and NASA is spending well below accepted industry guidelines on annual maintenance, repairs, and upgrades. The lack of timely maintenance presents safety issues, particularly with large, high-powered equipment. NASA should find a solution to these issues before any catastrophic failures occur that could seriously impact missions and research operations, the report says.
To restore these laboratories, NASA should strike a better balance of funding and leadership between long-term research and development and short-term mission programs, the report says. These areas would be improved if they were managed separately. In recent years, administrative and budgeting changes have led to a substantial reduction of long-term investment in fundamental technology.
NASA should improve the quality and equipment of its basic research laboratories to make them at least comparable with those at the U.S. departments of Energy and Defense, top-tier universities, and corporate laboratories, the report says. A strategy to ensure continuity and retention of technical knowledge is also needed, especially if the agency continues to rely on contractors to support the labs and facilities. In particular, NASA should increase resources to its aeronautics labs and facilities. Funding for NASA's aeronautics programs has been reduced by 48 percent from fiscal years 2005 to 2009, impeding NASA's ability to advance U.S. technological leadership in this area.
The report -- "Capabilities for the Future -- An Assessment of NASA Laboratories for Basic Research" -- can be found at: http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12903
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