Your tax dollars, lost in space: Major science funding takes hit under Obama

NASA is shuttering the Gravity and Extreme Magnetism Small Explore (GEMS) project, which was going to use X-rays to study black holes and space-time theory, the space agency announced Thursday -- but not before costing taxpayers at least $43.5 million.

GEMS was supposed to cost no more than $119 million, not counting the rocket that would launch it into orbit. But NASA has already spent tens of millions, according to June 5 briefing charts obtained by, and an independent evaluation pegged the project at 20 to 30 percent overbudget.

NASA's astrophysics director Paul Hertz said the technology needed for the instrument took longer to develop than expected, which drove up the price.

"We are in the process of formally notifying Congress of this decision," he said.


Canceling the X-ray telescope mission will cost NASA millions in fees, bringing the total bill for not deploying a major new science mission to as much as $56 million, according to

"The GEMS project was initiated under a very well designed cost cap ... it was clear they would not be able to be completed within their cost cap," Hertz explained.

It joins a growing list of major science projects, from the space shuttle and new rockets to labs built back on or deep beneath the ground, that have been cancelled or cut by the Obama administration.

The crippled budgets and closed labs have some scientists wondering if major funding has stalled -- and fearing the long term implications.

“When science loses funding, all of society suffers,” Don Lincoln, a senior scientist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., told “While many citizens are not especially interested in what they consider to be esoteric bits of knowledge, they do like the spinoffs. The World Wide Web was invented at the CERN lab to help particle physicists communicate across with each other across the world. If the laboratory wasn't built or was closed, there would be no Fox News website.”

Lincoln explained that science labs will aim high and develop a budget that covers what they really want to do. Then the government declines the budget, and they start over, forced to create a weaker proposal. "The things we can do are deemed not grandiose enough, and the things that are grandiose enough we can't afford," he said.

The result, he said, is that experiments are sometimes outsourced to other countries. China has a space laboratory called the Tiangong-1, while U.S. scientists fly to the CERN particle accelerator in Geneva. In the U.S., the science picture is different:

  • This week, the space program landed with a final thud as NASA donated the Space Shuttle Enterprise to a science museum in New York and ceded the space race to the private sector. President Obama killed the Constellation project, intended to create a successor to the shuttle, in early 2010.
  • The Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUCEL) lost funding from the NSF in late 2010. The project -- a “dark matter” detector -- rebounded when the Department of Energy funded a new project, the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF).
  • The James Webb Space Telescope, the Hubble successor, has suffered major setbacks and funding snafus -- though it continues, overbudget by numbers as astronomical as the heavens it will study.
  • There’s a barren field at a science lab near Chicago. Just a few years ago, the Fermilab Tevatron particle accelerator was whisking atoms around a 3.9-mile oval and crashing them into one another, looking for signs of the early universe. Last September, that experiment -- which cost about $120 million to build in 1983, not including ongoing maintenance costs -- was closed as well.

“Conducting fundamental science experiments is how we learn about the world around us, how we interact with our world and how the world affects us,” said Kevin Lesko, the principal investigator for SURF. Probing the origins of the universe costs money.


“The science communities are responding to the economic realities that we are all facing,” Lesko told But students at universities and science labs have to be re-assigned when projects change, which can cause delays or hinder their education. “We can't expect our students to take a multiple year delay in their studies, nor can they quickly change topics to work on some other question.”

Not every scientist sees a crisis in funding, however.

“We've seen programs come and go in almost 30 years,” said Sarah Boisvert, the co-founder of Potomac Photonics and a fellow at the Laser Institute of America. “While our NSF funding of last year was delayed while Congress re-authorized funds, it has been no different than other administrations. The hot topics -- right now manufacturing-related work, sensors, miniaturization, MEMS, nanotechnology -- are doing well. And these are the areas where the US needs to stay ahead of the world.”

The GEMS scientists appealed the cancellation of their mission on Tuesday at NASA headquarters, according to

And NASA will continue to spend money on the project: It will cost an estimated $13 million to close out the project, Hertz said, even though no rocket had been purchased for the mission and the telescope itself had not yet been built.

Joshua Chamot, a spokesman for the NSF, says most science projects receive solid funding. Reductions are part of the planning process, for good stewardship.

“Each year, NSF receives over 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,000 new funding awards,” Chamot told “This 20 percent funding rate means that each year, thousands of projects involving good science don't get funded.”

“Processes have been in place for many years to help us update research priorities to make sure the best science at the outermost frontiers of knowledge is supported.”