Gravity Probe B
As a study in the anthropology of science, the project illuminates the
conflicts that arise from the competition for dwindling federal research
funds and the manner in which the organizational structure of a research
agency can affect the progress of science itself.
The Gravity Probe B scientists say part of the reason they have been
forced to defend the project so often is that NASA itself has no natural
home for a fundamental physics experiment like theirs, leaving it more
vulnerable to advocates for other space science programs trying to
preserve their own budgets.
"All the astrophysicists were very sympathetic," Everitt says wryly.
"They would all love to see the program go, provided it goes after all
their programs have gone."
Over the years it has been in development, the project has stirred
enough uneasiness in some space science circles that it has been
subjected to repeated formal, independent scientific reviews. In each
instance, its scientific underpinnings have been endorsed, as the
reports from NASA and the National Research Council show.
"The Gravity Probe B project has been reevaluated by the science
community several times - more than any other project the agency
has ever done - simply because of the gee-whiz nature of the
science and the oh-gee-whiz of all the technical advances that have to
be in place for this thing to work," says Urban at Marshall. "The
precision of just about everything on this mission is unprecedented."
Nonetheless, skeptics believe that Gravity Probe B is a project -
conceived only a few years after Sputnik was launched - that has
outlived any early doubts about Einstein's theory.
It is, they contend, a project kept alive by skilled political
maneuvers, draining scarce tax dollars from more deserving space science
endeavors at a time of severe financial austerity. Indeed, even though
the space agency today