Bush science advisor says station needs major reforms

Posted: January 9, 2002

The International Space Station program could be in serious jeopardy if it cannot correct its management problems in the near future, President George W. Bush's science advisor said Tuesday.

John Marburger, the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, told reporters that while the Bush Administration continues to support the space station, reforming its management is a major priority.

"The space station is a troubled project but it is an important one," Marburger said. "The space station has a major management problem and it is very difficult to understand what needs to be done... No one knows how much it will cost."

In November an independent review panel led by former Lockheed Martin executive Thomas Young recommended that NASA hold off on expanding the station beyond the "core complete" phase for at least two years until the problems with the station program can be understood and corrected. New NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe has indicated that he supports this recommendation.

This decision has been controversial among the station's international partners, including Canada, Europe, Japan, and Russia, because the core complete version of the station features neither a habitation module nor a crew return vehicle. Without those additions the station can only support three-person crews, severely limiting the amount of science that can be performed on the station, as well as reducing opportunities for station visits by astronauts from nations other than the US and Russia.

European officials have gone so far as to ask US Secretary of State Colin Powell to intervene, noting that the agreement among the international partners has the power of a treaty that the US would be violating if it did not provide the hab module and crew return vehicle. Marburger said he believed that the concerns of the international partners can be worked out.

Saying the ISS program "needs help," Marburger noted that it is still important to get the station up and running. "It would be a scandal if the station was not exploited," he said.

However, Marburger hinted that the Bush Administration might take more extreme measures with the station program if its management and cost problems cannot be resolved. "If we can't get our arms around the management of the space station, there are a lot worse things that could happen." This was interpreted to mean anything up to and including cancellation of the project, in the worst possible case.

Marburger spoke with reporters after addressing a plenary session of a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, DC. In his speech, one of his first public addresses on the topics of astronomy and space sciences since becoming director in the fall, he said that astronomers who receive federal funding will have to make more of an effort to explain why their often esoteric research is important.

"This administration values discovery science and will continue to support it," he said. However, he said that scientists working on basic research, without any immediate practical application, should realize that the government and taxpayers "want to know what they're getting out of an investment."

Marburger, a former director of the Brookhaven National Laboratory, drew a parallel between research in astronomy and that in particular physics. In both cases, he said, have little relevance to the public. However, astronomy has the advantage in that it has wide public appeal compared to particle physics and has traditionally received considerable support from the private sector, factors that may allow the field to handle changes in federal funding better than particle physics, which struggled in the 1990s.

While not discussing funding levels, Marburger suggested that the Bush Administration's focus was not on basic research in fields like astronomy, but on the "frontier of complexity" in areas like biotechnology and information technology. Research in these areas could yield practical applications, and do so for less money that fields like astronomy, which has grown increasing reliant on large, expensive telescopes and spacecraft for what Marburger called "diminishing returns."

These constrains will force the astronomy community to come up with ways of evaluating the success of various research projects, although how that will be done is an open question. "You have to have some way of selecting what to do with a specific amount of money," Marburger said.