Following massive cost overruns, NASA is considering a drastic cut-back on research equipment aboard the International Space Station. The agency's proposals have angered scientists, particularly those who feel that their plans to study how biological systems adapt in space are under threat.

Kathie Olsen, who heads the agency's Office of Biological and Physical Research, says she will hold a workshop “as soon as possible” to enlist advice from the scientific community for working out a reduced 10-year plan for space-station science.

Olsen's office has responded to a White House order to bring budgets into line (see Nature 410, 399; 2001) by proposing a 40% reduction in funding for laboratory equipment. This would entail scrapping key pieces of lab equipment due to be installed after 2004, including an animal holding cage and facilities for cell culture and plant studies. The cuts would decimate gravitational biology studies on the station, say researchers in the field.

Meanwhile, another space-station partner, Japan, is having difficulty building a 2.5-metre centrifuge. This is a critical piece of hardware that would allow scientists to simulate different levels of gravity on test plants and animals. Japan's project managers have pressed NASA either to scale back its technical requirements for the centrifuge or to come up with more money.

Going overboard: cuts could mean that NASA's space-station 'lifeboat' would be abandoned. Credit: NASA/AP

But the worst cut-back, say scientists, would be if NASA abandoned work on a space-station rescue vehicle. This would effectively reduce the onboard crew from seven people to three. With only three astronauts on board, says Kenneth Baldwin of the University of California at Irvine, who heads NASA's advisory committee for biological research, “you can't do science, I don't care what anyone says”. He estimates that these measures would eliminate 75–85% of the basic research planned on the station.

A three-person crew would also mean that European and Japanese researchers would have little chance of working in orbit, leaving the project's international partners anxious about their role in a scaled-down station. Science investigations for the facility are being selected jointly by the partners, who had also expected to share NASA lab equipment. Olsen has been talking to science managers at the European Space Agency about flying European-built space-station equipment earlier than planned to help compensate for the proposed NASA cuts.

In deciding which US equipment should be scrapped, NASA science managers gave priority to research on astronaut health and biotechnology over basic research in gravitational biology and materials science. That rankled with some space biologists, who point to studies questioning the value of past biotechnology experiments in space (see Nature 404, 114; 2000).

If NASA must choose between disciplines to make financial ends meet, it should first establish “what is the mission of the station”, says Milburn Jessup, a surgeon at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, who chairs NASA's station utilization subcommittee. Before the workshop is held to outline research priorities, the agency should decide which of two broad thrusts is the more important — a long-term presence in space, including human missions to the Moon and Mars, or research on improving products and processes on Earth.

Such a choice may be necessary if Congress decides not to give NASA the extra $4 billion–$5 billion the agency says it needs over the next five years to complete the station — this is on top of the $8 billion already budgeted. Early signs are that law-makers are so exasperated with the agency's poor control over costs that they may withhold the money as a disciplinary measure. In a recent report accompanying the NASA spending bill for 2002, the Senate appropriation subcommittee that oversees the agency's budget said in unusually blunt terms: “The Committee has lost confidence in the [station] programme's ability to responsibly manage the budget.”

But Baldwin concludes that more money for the rescue vehicle and other hardware is “the only solution we see” that would ensure that the station is an efficient multidisciplinary laboratory. Martin Fettman, who chairs NASA's oversight panel for some of the lab equipment marked for cancellation, says his committee “has come close” to resigning in protest over the proposed cuts. Although scrapping equipment such as the animal holding facility is “unacceptable”, he says, scientists might be willing to support stretching out the timeline for installing such equipment on the station. But until NASA comes back with an amended plan, he says, “we're out in the vapour, waiting”.