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Headshot of Emily Lakdawalla

New style in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla

09-08-2007 23:28 CDT

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Those of you who watch NASA's news closely will know that this topic is about a week old, but when the press conference headed by Alan Stern happened last week I had other things going on, and the news didn't seem all that urgent. But it's certainly worth relating, and now I'm stuck in a meeting all day and in search of things to write about.

It was a rather odd press conference. The press was notified about it with a press release titled "NASA SCIENCE CHIEF TO REVEAL CASSINI PLANS; DISCUSS PROGRAMS," and promising that "Stern will discuss plans for NASA's Cassini mission to make an unusually close encounter with Saturn's geyser-moon Enceladus and provide project updates for a variety of science flight programs." Most news outlets reporting on this press conference wrote about the plans for Cassini to make its March 2008 flyby of Enceladus an incredibly close one at a distance of less than 25 kilometers as though it was news. But it's not news -- the idea has been public for quite some time now (it's been on my tour page forever), so I assumed that Alan would be discussing other stuff, like maybe the detailed plans for the extended mission.

I was wrong about that; Alan was, indeed, announcing the closeness of the flyby, while discussing several other topics. None of them was really news. The newsworthy point that Alan was trying to make through last week's press conference was that he was changing the way that NASA's Science Mission Directorate (of which he is Associate Administrator) is being run, with the goal of "looking to get more out of the budget that we have," he said, by "hold[ing] costs down and increas[ing] productivity of science missions."

The first examples he cited were of the extended missions that were recently announced for Stardust and Deep Impact, which are, indeed, getting more out of existing spacecraft. Personally, while I think the extended missions are neat, extended missions are nothing particularly new; NASA has a fine tradition of building spacecraft well enough that they survive into missions that are extended once, twice, even three times. It's not common that an extended mission allows a whole different planetary body to be targeted, as is the case for Deep Impact and Stardust both, but it's not a major departure from the way business has been conducted at NASA in the past, in my opinion.

Then Alan moved on to discuss Kepler. Kepler is the next Discovery mission (which is to say, a relatively low-cost mission, a class that has included great stuff like Deep Impact, Stardust, NEAR, and MESSENGER, but also the failed CONTOUR). Kepler is intended to locate Earth-size planets orbiting other stars, and is currently planned for launch in June 2008. It's suffered various schedule and budget setbacks. Every time this happens, money has to be taken from elsewhere. So when the Kepler mission came to NASA this year for more money, Alan said, "We didn't want to take that cost increase, so we worked with the project fairly intensively for three months to protect our budget, and in the end, the project found its way out of the woods without a single dime of cost increase that we would have had to bookkeep out of other missions or our research and analysis budget. We consider that a first step toward better cost management." When he was asked later how those cost increases had been avoided, he explained that part of the savings was in reducing what Kepler is expected to accomplish during its prime mission: "Kepler will go after the same number of targets over a shorter period of time resulting in an 11% decrease in the number of detections in their core mission. We fully expect them to come back with an extended mission." Asked if this isn't just deferring the spending, Alan said, "Many missions in recent years have gone in to cost trouble. In the past, SMD has paid for them directly, which mortgages our future." By doing things this way, Alan says, he's paying less up front for the mission, essentially forcing the mission to demonstrate with primary mission success that it deserves the extra dollars -- and preventing a budget squeeze this year.

He also described some creativity with SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. This project, which is modifying a Boeing 747 to become an airborne observatory, has run in to terrible delays and cost overruns and has nearly been canceled at least once. It is finally nearly ready to begin flight testing, but until now was considered years away from science operations. Alan explains how they are going to start getting science out of SOFIA sooner: "Until last month, the project had planned to bring along the aircraft through a long series of upgrades and flight tests, to begin to produce astronomy in about six years. We felt that was too much delayed gratification. We needed to get more productivity out of the airplane sooner.

"We directed them to think of themselves as more of a brand-new ground-based observatory than a brand-new spacecraft. With a spacecraft we launch it and it's ready to go as soon as we do on-orbit checkout. With a ground-based observatory [we make incremental improvements] in a spiral pattern. As a result, we're going to be able to start turning out science in 2009 rather than 2013, with no additional cost in dollars, but with the very small penalty that full operational capability will not be reached for a few extra months, in 2014. Nonetheless, the astronomical community will start to reap the benefits of this telescope, which has the aperture of the Hubble Space Telescope, the year after next, and we're really proud of that."

This is all a bit bureaucratic so I wasn't excited enough about it to post immediately, but it does illustrate that there's a new way of thinking about the science budget at NASA, and I assume the credit goes to Alan. I would love to see NASA's budget increased. I think it's probably not realistic to expect much of an increase, however. And I don't have much love for programs that run in to huge cost overruns and squeeze everyone else. I am delighted to hear any public servant interested in getting me more bang for my buck.

More power to you, Alan! Let's see how much more science you can squeeze out of my tax dollars.

 
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