Cover Story

When Congress passed its 2008 federal budget, NASA was one of the only science-related agencies to receive a bit of a boost, from $16.3 billion in 2007 to $17.3 billion this year.

But that seemingly good news for NASA psychologists belies the fact that much of the agency's money is being shifted away from established programs and research, and toward specific new agendas-in particular, long-duration manned missions to the moon and Mars, NASA observers say.

An area that's suffering most is one where psychologists have played the biggest role: human factors research in aeronautics, which among other things helps to ensure air-traffic safety. In fact, over time, the aeronautics budget has dwindled from about 15 percent to just 4 percent of the agency's budget, where it now stands at $625 million, says APA Legislative and Federal Affairs Officer Elizabeth Hoffman, PhD.

"More money is being siphoned off of human factors than ever before," says Hoffman.

While the Federal Aviation Administration also plays a major role in ensuring aviation safety, it is a regulatory agency and lacks the basic research capacity that NASA has traditionally supplied, observers say. (An interagency agreement in place between NASA and the FAA funds some NASA psychologists' work.)

The cuts represent a 15-year trend toward minimizing the human side of air and space research, NASA followers say.

The casualties have included a fatigue countermeasures group at NASA-Ames that was examining how to prevent pilots from falling asleep at the controls, and an icing research group at NASA's Glenn Research Center that had been developing systems and training to recognize, avoid and mitigate dangerous icing conditions-both areas on the National Transportation Safety Board's "Most Wanted Safety List," according to a November letter by International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers President Gregory J. Junemann to the House Science and Technology Committee.

In addition, the cuts represent a major threat to future air safety because there isn't enough money going toward important human factors research related to the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, a massive overhaul of the nation's aviation system that is currently under way ( see "Air travel: The next generation" ), Junemann notes in another letter to Congress on Jan. 14.

Airline safety is as good as it is in part because of work done by NASA human factors researchers, he says: "It is the safety of the nation's future NextGen aispace that is now in jeopardy."

In the view of APA Executive Director for Science Steven Breckler, PhD, all of this adds up to potentially dangerous short sightedness.

"Generally, the history of these things is that catastrophic failures tend to occur if you fail to take into account the human and behavioral elements-especially at NASA, of all places," he says. "You'd think they would have learned that decision-making, for example, is critical to the success of [a NASA] mission."

Not all is lost, however. NASA is granting significant funding to psychologists on the "S" side of NASA, albeit in the context of another confusing priority reorganiziation that appears to have halved the budget for space-related work in the area from its 2006 level, Breckler notes. The psychology and human factors portion of that reshuffle is now incorporated into what is called the Human Research Program.

Still, NASA-Ames research psychologist Judith Orasanu, PhD, who conducted research on aviation flight crews and is now studying team performance in astronaut crews (see "Deep space psych"), notes that the human side of space travel is receiving unprecedented attention and input.

"That's very encouraging," she says. "Although there's always been provision for the behavioral and psychological health and well-being of the astronauts, there hasn't been this kind of research program targeted at these issues before."

Other NASA watchers say they just hope that NASA's historical role as a trusted, independent analyst of aviation safety issues closer to Earth won't be lost.


Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.