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Fear and rambling at NASA

The US space agency needs an injection of rationality.

Only a confused space agency would consider shutting down the Voyager spacecraft as they approach the uncharted edge of the Solar System. Or cutting the basic research grants that provide the scientific basis for everything it does. Or cancelling satellites that make critical measurements of global climate change.

Last week a US National Academy of Sciences panel said that enough is enough, and called on NASA to reinstate some of its cancelled Earth-science projects (see page 9). NASA science chief Al Diaz denied that one of them, Glory, had even been cancelled. This highlights another disturbing trend: news of an impending cancellation is sent out or leaked, followed by a quick denial. Predictably, scientists reduced to chasing down rumours have turned fearful and angry.

NASA got into this mess through a variety of factors: an expensive initiative to send astronauts back to the Moon; uncertainty over how much the space shuttle will cost to repair; an accounting system that figures in all the agency's overhead costs for the first time; moves by Congress to claim hundreds of millions of dollars from NASA's budget; and unprecedented congressional permission to move money between accounts. NASA managers who send out confused signals may not know themselves how much they can spend.

Into this muddle steps the new NASA administrator, Michael Griffin, who has already offered signs of hope. He, too, is impatient with the agency's accounting system and wants it fixed. He admits that not every project will survive NASA's change in direction, but at least wants decisions to be made rationally, meaning that the threatened Voyagers and the Hubble Space Telescope will get another hearing. The fiscal problems facing Griffin remain huge, but his willingness to address them honestly and directly are a good start.

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Fear and rambling at NASA. Nature 435, 1 (2005).

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