NASA is basking in the glow of a Nobel Prize awarded to one of its scientists and to a Berkeley astronomer for research performed on a satellite built by NASA. The award is richly deserved, and the agency deserves great credit for making the work possible.

Too bad the programme that yielded these pioneering discoveries was reined in not long ago so that NASA could pour billions of dollars into resuming shuttle flights, finishing the international space station, and developing spacecraft to pursue the Bush administration’s ambitious space exploration programme.

The research that won this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics was performed using instruments aboard the Cosmic Background Explorer, or COBE satellite, launched in 1989. Their findings provided strong support for the Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe, and turned cosmology into a precise science. The COBE satellite was part of NASA’s Explorers Programme, which uses small satellites to conduct important studies that don’t need gigantic, costly space platforms.

Yet these and similar small-scale missions were disproportionately cut to free up money for more grandiose programmes.

The Nobel award suggests that NASA needs to rebalance its portfolio — a task the agency says is in progress. — The New York Times