Emily Lakdawalla • May 07, 2006
OPAG, Day 2: Update from the NASA Advisory Committee meetings this week
During the first day of OPAG, the chair of the group, Fran Bagenal, was not present because she was participating in some rather important discussions taking place in Maryland. She came in on Friday morning to give a lengthy update. Her update contained a rather more thorough explanation of the structure of all of these committees and subcommittees than I'd heard at VEXAG, so things are making slightly more sense to me now -- but it's still all kind of a blur to me what goes on in Washington, with all the groups and advisory bodies and their overlapping responsibilities and individual agenda.
Fran began: "As you know, the Solar System Exploration subcommittee which used to exist as an advisory body to NASA HQ was disbanded some time ago. It's been replaced. There is now a new thing called -- as it's always been called -- the NAC [NASA Advisory Committee]. This one is chaired by Jack Schmitt, who is a lunar geologist and astronaut, the first scientist-astronaut. His agenda is to go back to the Moon -- you know that's why he's been put there, to go back to the Moon.
"There's a subcommittee, for science, chaired by Charles Kennel. Also there are Wes Huntress, dear friend of the planetary science community; Mark Robinson; Neil Tyson --" here she made a disgusted looking face, someone asked her why, and she said "he was the dastardly person who said Pluto wasn't a planet! -- and there's Eugene Levy...so actually we have a good group for planetary science, pretty heavy in science. That is the science subcommittee of the NAC. Then there are 5 subcommittees that map directly on the subdivisions of NASA -- astrophysics, heliophysics, Earth sciences, and planetary sciences, and a fifth one called the planetary protection subcommittee." The Planetary Science Subcommittee is headed by Sean Solomon.
"We -- the four science subdivisions -- met together and in separate groups and talked with the people from NASA HQ and discussed various things. Sean Solomon appointed me as his vice chair, because he felt it was important that the outer planets community was represented.
"We started off with Harrison Schmitt, who's 'return to the Moon, return to the Moon.'" While Fran, as an outer planet scientist (and in agreement with pretty much everyone at OPAG as well as VEXAG), would like to see less of a focus on the Moon, Fran had to admit that "I got him to sign my copy of his book.
"We [the Planetary Science subcommittee] are going to write a letter in the next three days, which we will then send to the science subcommittee of the NAC, who then meet next week or the week after. We can't say, 'don't go back to the Moon,' obviously. But we can say, if you have any spare money, this is where we'd like you to put it. If you have to take some money away, don't take it from here. So we can give some advice, and it is heeded. Sean Solomon had been instructed to form working groups from the different disciplines. He said we already had working groups, those are the 'AGs.'" (e.g. OPAG, VEXAG, MEPAG.) "More than any other division, we've got our act together here in the solar system. So we should proceed knowing we have some influence, we're listened to, and we're not wasting our time.
"So these committees are all under the Federal Advisory Committee Act or FACA. This means all meetings have to be open, have public record and so forth, all members have to be vetted." (She described the comical situation of trying to explain her retirement investments to the lawyer responsible for this vetting process: "I'm like, 'I don't know, it goes into a hole and comes out eventually.') "The advantage of FACA is if we give advice to NASA through this structure, NASA has to respond. There is always a point where there has to be a response, for the public record. So that's where the power is. If there's any sticks it's there."
At this point I wrote in my notes, "My brain hurts." To summarize how I think this all works: NASA Administrator Mike Griffin wants input from the science community to come through the body called the NASA Advisory Council, which is headed by Apollo astronaut Harrison Schmitt. Sitting directly on the NAC are five people who represent the "Science Subcommittee" of the NAC, chaired by Charlie Kennel. (Other, parallel subcommittees represent aeronautics, finance, human exploration, and human capital.) Then there are five science advisory bodies that can feed input to the Science Subcommittee; the one we are concerned about is the Planetary Science Subcommittee (is it actually a "sub-subcommittee?"), which is chaired by Sean Solomon and vice-chaired by Fran Bagenal. (Other, parallel entities represent heliophysics, astrophysics, Earth sciences, and planetary protection.) All of these committees exist under the FACA framework, so all of their meetings and interactions must be part of the public record. I think.
Fran continued, "Mike Griffin recognized he made a mistake in dismantling the advisory structure before he put the new one in place; with no way to receive advice, mistakes were made. He said [the cuts to] R&A was his mistake. He emphatically said, 'We are going to the Moon.' He's been told we're going back to the Moon. He was appointed because he wants to go to the Moon. That isn't going to change. Secondly, it's clear he wanted to get rid of the ISS [International Space Station] and shuttle as soon as possible, but he can't, because of international agreements. We have to deal with return to flight, 16 plus 1 shuttle flights are on the manifest, and ISS has to be paid for. This is the big problem. He wants to get CEV going, and he's got these costs associated with shuttle and ISS. And he's found ways, he says, in the case of planetary science: if the argument is first to go to the Moon, then to go to Mars, then Mars missions down the road were premature in that we're not going to Mars yet, we're going to the Moon. So that's where most of the planetary science money was removed. Of the 2.9 billion that came out of science, 2.7 came out of Mars missions. That does not mean the cuts to R&A and astrobiology were not serious. But that's where most of the money from SMD [the Science Mission Directorate within NASA] was removed.
"Next we had Mary Cleave, who gave her standard pitch on the NASA budget. She says that the NASA budget has been growing, SMD has been growing, it's not going to be as fast as it was originally planned to grow." This is indeed the same pitch she gave at that awful Lunar and Planetary Science Conference 'NASA night.' "We all know that the budget growth is actually associated with things like full-cost accounting, increased cost of launches, and mission delays causing cost increases due to inflation and other things. But there were also additional missions going in there. The argument is we, SMD, should curb our appetite, and it comes down to less than inflation growth, in real dollars it's a decline. And so the biggest hits were to solar system, mostly out of the Mars line.
"So then we broke off and went into the groups. And we had a meeting with Andy Dantzler, and several of you sat through these meetings. We looked at the budget, and Andy took various approaches to looking at ways in which we could restore R&A. We were looking at 5 years, 2007 through 2011. There's a question about whether the 2006 operating plan could be changed. The 2006 operating plan was passed to Congress, who then some people on the [Congressional] science committee responded with, 'you took more money out of Mars, you took more out of astrobiology, and you haven't started with the Europa mission like we directed you.'"
Jeff Moore interrupted to ask: "How responsive does NASA have to be to that?"
Mark Sykes responded: "If NASA were to ignore that, they're not authorized to spend more than 80% of their budget until Congress approves their operating plan, so they would get a 20% hit across the board. Basically the letter was telling them that 'we have report language, we told you to do things, you didn't do it, come back to us with an operating plan that conforms, and then we'll let you go forward.'"
Fran Bagenal returned to her summary. "So what we were presented by Andy was an argument. We could leave things the way they are, or we could do various things. For instance, we could restore R&A by cutting the 2011 Scout opportunity, by cutting the Discovery mission that was the AO [Announcement of Opportunity] just completed, or we could add a flagship and cut both. So he went through various drastic scenarios. So we had lots of debates about this budget that he presented -- we asked him, 'What's this here? What's that there?' He fairly explained a number of them, but the problem was, he presented pie charts that took the whole five years; it was very coarse in terms of scale. We were arguing to him that the fix we need to do is probably at a higher resolution than they were presenting. It's true it's not easy to solve this, there's not a big slice of fat you can just cut off.
"There is some reality that if you take a mission and delay it, you don't just move that fixed amount of money out, you incur some fixed costs. This is not an easy problem to solve. At some point, you end up just delaying the problem. He kept on talking about bow waves, delaying the problem."
Mark Sykes: "That's why it's best to talk about delaying something that hasn't started yet."
Fran Bagenal: "There's an advantage in cutting something before the money stream starts going. So that's why things like the 2011 Scout and current Discovery AO were targets.
"Now this is where things got a little messy. A lot of people in the room were involved in those particular events," Discovery and Scout. "So there was a big issue about conflict of interest. I may actually have my name on a Scout, I'm not sure, so I had to go out of the room along with a lot of other people. It turns out that all the other divisions had the same problem. So when we reported back at the end of the day we couldn't come to a conclusion because none of us had been in the room; we were stymied by the lawyers. So the way we resolved this in the end is: we could talk in generalities or euphemisms. So if you wanted to talk about restoring Scout, you could talk about restoring 'this kind of thing.'" There was a lot of head-shaking in the audience. "The bottom line is, we did strongly support restoring R&A. I spoke up saying that I thought a 50% cut to astrobiology was extremely damaging. People who know me know I don't like astrobiology, but a 50% cut is devastating. A 30% cut, in a humane way, you don't need to renege on current commitments -- you miss a year. But if you cut 50% you have to renege."
Someone pointed out that indeed, most R&A grants run three years; a 30% cut means you have to skip a year but you don't take any already-awarded money away.
Curt Niebur: "But I should point out that with astrobiology it gets a lot more complex because in addition to the grants, you have the astrobiology institutes," long-term entities that are independent of the 3-year grant programs.
Jeff Moore: "What's the cost to cut just new people in astrobiology?"
Curt Niebur: "I don't know."
Amy Simon Miller: "In all this discussion, who trumps who? Congress said, 'you shouldn't cut 30 million from aeronautics,' they say nothing about R&A. Clearly there isn't enough money to do all of these things."
Fran Bagenal: "What we were talking about with Andy Dantzler was priorities within the budget. So things like aeronautics are a separate issue. Even Mars is a separate line. So the message we gave was the Planetary Science subcommittee, representing the solar system exploration community, feels that R&A is important and should be restored.
"So we then had a bit of a reprieve; Thursday morning we had half an hour of statements from the community. Some people were supporting specific missions, but many people spoke in favor of R&A. It was half an hour of impassioned speeches. I heard a lot of people say afterward that it was a really good session. That it didn't come across as hysterical; it was rational argument as to why we needed to support R&A and small missions.
"We then went back to Andy Dantzler and talked about the budget and the plan. There's a Congressionally mandated plan that NASA has to come up with, a strategic plan for science. And we all think, 'yet another plan. But Headquarters, in fact Andy Dantzler, has to come up with a plan for planetary science, and they're trying to, in a hurry and we're talking months, write a planning document. So obviously they're taking the material that's there, the roadmap, the decadal survey, and we're like, 'who's writing this?' And it's HQ staff. And we're like, 'wait a minute, can we help you?' So the next step is this document, which I wrote this on the plane last night. We have to get this in, because if we don't they will write 'Mars' instead of 'giant planet.' I'm exaggerating, but the Mars guys are really slick; we, the outer planets community, have got to get our act together."
Curt Niebur: "This science plan needs to be done in the next few months because Congress wants it this fall, but NASA wants the 'AGs' to look at it, the National Research Council to look at it, and they all need time for input."
Fran Bagenal: "So what we looked at was, the four mission statements were almost word for word the same as in the Roadmap document. In that document you have five mission objectives, and they've been merged to four. I think they're fine. Then there's four mission destinations, and this is what we have some discussions about. Inner solar system, which includes the Moon, Outer solar system, which is us, Mars, and primitive bodies, which is also us. We're going through a phase of our science where we're debating what's a primitive body and what's not, but it's basically a way to talk about smaller bodies in the solar system effectively.
"So we then had a presentation by Melissa McGrath of the Strategic Roadmap. At lunchtime we had a presentation from Len Fisk to the whole SMD community; Griffin was there too. Fisk is chair of the Space Studies Board that advises NASA on what to do. So it has been mandated that the Space Studies Board will review the 2007 budget. They've done a review of the 2007 budget and got it out in 6 weeks, which is incredible. Griffin came to hear what he had to say. And what they said was, you won't find screeching that says 'you must do this,' what you will see is some bland words, but underneath that the message is quite strongly that R&A and small missions are very important. That the amount of money that has been removed from R&A, microgravity and life sciences, they said those should be restored, pointed out these are only 1% of the NASA budget. They said to Congress, give NASA 1% more to fix R&A. There's no obligation from Congress to do this, but Congress asked for their advice, and they got it.
"It's clear that Griffin and Cleave didn't realize they were opening up this hornet's nest. They didn't realize this would let loose a national furor. They got the message. I'm fairly confident that the R&A funds, not necessarily all of them, there will be some restoration. How much will go into the 2006 operating plan I don't know. There was a lot of damage done in what was going on in 2004, 2005, and 2006 budgets, associated with the fact that the advisory structure was disbanded. Now it's understood that we're watching very, very carefully."
Sushil Atreya: "Is Andy Dantzler going to come back to you?"
Fran Bagenal: "Yes, the Planetary Science subcommittee is meeting again in July. We will discuss the budget more. There's going to be a big lunar science conference in October discussing lunar science that should be done for science's sake, and lunar science that is enabled by human exploration of the moon, so we have to address that. It is organized by NAC -- it's Schmitt's conference. Sean Solomon also identified technology as being key to what we need to talk about, particularly the outer solar system.
"I then talked with Andy Dantzler about, he asked me, should he write a letter for OPAG, and I said no, don't write a letter, he and I sat down and we went through various items. I said let's go over the letter that we wrote to him and go over these issues.
"Andy Dantzler claimed that he really tried to have the [Europa] flagship study happen, but he was told that since there was no money in the out years to start the mission, there was no point in having a phase A study. I argued, there is a point in having a phase A, because the big issue that we have is: does a Europa mission fit within a flagship box? You then have to describe what the flagship box would be. Completion within 15 years -- achieving a mission within a budget of, say, 2.8 billion, for scale. Describe a box and have a decent study that requires substantial funding and time to figure out whether it fits in that box. We have to be able to say 'yes' or 'no.' If we have, unfortunately, to say no, we have to put it aside and go on to something else. We've done lots of Europa studies, but none of them has been done with sufficient fidelity to figure out once and for all whether we can do it or not. My feeling is we need to write a letter that goes to Andy Danztler. He argues he would like to have such a study happen, but he's basically been directed not to do that, and I talked to Mary Cleave, and she basically wants to put it off. I think we have to be persistent with this."
If what she's saying isn't clear here, it's this: No one knows how much the Europa mission will actually cost. We can't figure that number out until something like a "phase A" study of the mission is performed. Fran is arguing that NASA must spend the necessary money -- whatever that is, likely a number in the high single digit or low double digit of millions -- to do a thorough enough preliminary study to figure out what it will take. And the outer planets community needs to be prepared to accept the conclusion of that study; if it winds up with a mission costing around 2 or 2.5 billion dollars, they should press for NASA to do it. If it would cost more than 3 billion or more, the outer planets community must be prepared to drop it in favor of something else more feasible.
Gregg Vane: "Just a few weeks ago, both Ed Weiler and Charles Elachi met with Mary Cleave, and compared and contrasted science return from flagship versus Discovery missions. They made a very strong point that we have to have flagships. Mary Cleave made no reference to that this week."
Heidi Hammel: "I think they were discussing Cassini, Voyager, and Hubble -- those were the examples they were using."
Fran Bagenal: "How do we get flagship missions started is a crux issue. All the divisions are facing this, but it's absolutely critical for OPAG."
Someone asked: "How much to do a study?"
Fran Bagenal: "The rule of thumb is, through the end of phase B, you need to spend 10 percent of the mission. So if it's a $2.5 billion mission, that's $250 million. So the question I asked Gregg last night is, what do you need to do a pre-phase A? What do you need to spend to know, given a certain cost sizing, time frame, and availability of technology, what can you do, or does it achieve the goals we have laid out in that box? the answer is probably on the order of 5 to 10 million." Vane agreed.
Another question: "What was spent on yesterday's JPL presentation" of their proposed Europa Explorer?
Jim Cutts answered: About $600,000.
Gregg Vane: "How much do you have to spend to be confident? Over the years at JPL, to get to the point where you can come within at least 30% or better of the final cost you have to spend about 10%."
Fran Bagenal: "The point is, we should put in our letter, very strongly state, describe what it is we need to have studied, describe what the plan is."
Someone said: "I don't think the money issue per se is the problem, it's the philosophy." They were referring to a reluctance on the part of NASA to fund any part of a Europa mission -- or a flagship mission.
Following this was a presentation by Jim Cutts on the "Roadmap" document, but this was not a lot different from the one he'd given to VEXAG. There was some discussion at the end about the over-optimism of the roadmap, which defines the rate at which missions should happen in the future: 7 Discovery missions per decade, 4 New Frontiers missions per decade, and 1 to 2 flagship missions per decade, depending upon their size. However, most people agreed that that proportion was the correct one. Still, it was also clear that the outer planets group in particular absolutely requires missions on the more expensive end of the scale -- New Frontiers at a minimum, flagship level for the most part. I think that most of the people in the room recognized that this is a bad year, and that they're all going to have to accept some losses this year. But they were also all hoping -- because they absolutely have to keep this hope -- that NASA is going to want to do flagship missions to the outer planets again.
Which context makes it kind of interesting that the next couple of presentations were on the kinds of outer solar system studies that do not require flagship missions (yet): Mike A'hearn talked about Deep Impact, and Mike Brown talked about Earth based studies of small bodies in the solar system.
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