Emily LakdawallaAug 21, 2007

More Activity in NASA's Science Mission Directorate

Emily here interrupting Doug's show from Potsdam to do an update on a topic I'm following. Two weeks ago I wrote about a press conference held by Alan Stern announcing a change in style in the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) at NASA, which he heads. I received an email from Alan a couple of days later, politely informing me that I'd missed his point on a couple of the topics. They had discussed the selection of extended missions for Stardust and Deep Impact as well as the prevention of a further cost overrun on Kepler. Alan told me that these three things were linked. Originally, the extended missions for Stardust and Deep Impact were going to be competed against each other, and only one of them funded; by solving the Kepler problem, Alan said, we were able to do both. "I was trying (clearly not very well) to make the point that managing costs for mission in development has direct benefit to the science we can accomplish. The other thing we were trying to get across was that all these various things are interconnected." He went on to say, "as I get more and more familiar with the 93 (yes, 93!) flight missions in SMD, and the dozens of R&A [Research & Analysis] efforts, I'm seeing many more opportunities to perk up the program, and after all, that is why I traded granite and pine trees for cement and cherry blossoms: to steer the boat we have as best one can and to emphasize that the first word in SMD and our purpose are the same --science."

Today, I received a Planetary Exploration Newsletter with more on how Alan is trying to revitalize the science part of SMD and get more science for our money. Because this is a new newsletter I figure most of you may not have seen it, so I'll reproduce it in its entirety here. There were lots of acronyms (of course) so I've dropped in expansions of those in brackets. Some of this stuff is beauraucratic detail that's only important to you if you have to deal with the frustrating process of getting money out of NASA on a regular basis, but there is also a significant amount of will directed toward future foreign cooperation on missions and research.


First, thanks to Mark Sykes for inviting me to write PEN [Planetary Exploration Newsletter] subscribers about recent events since I assumed the reigns of leadership at SMD [NASA's Science Mission Directorate]. But before I do that, I'll first say that when I arrived at SMD i
pril, I came with a set of specific goals that apply across all four of SMD's science themes - astrophysics, planetary, heliophysics, and Earth science. Those goals include:

  • Curtailing the standard practice of mission development cost increases, so the future mission queue is better protected.
  • Increasing science flight rates to more quickly advance the pace of discoveries.
  • Addressing R&A [Research and Analysis] process and budget issues to make researchers more effective and to more quickly advance the pace of discoveries.
  • Expanding collaborations on foreign missions to more quickly advance the pace of discoveries.
  • Expanding suborbital flight opportunities in order to help train PIs [Principal Investigators], to provide opportunities to raise TRL [Technology Readiness Levels] on instruments, and to do unique science where possible.
  • Reinvigorating lunar science in support of the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE).
I also want to let you know (if you don't already) that virtually the entire SMD front office team has been replaced since I came aboard. On arriving I also established an Office of the Chief Scientist to provide independent technical advice that essentially peer-reviews decisions made in SMD. And I established a Senior Advisor for R&A (SARA) position in the front office effective my first day; never before has the front office had a position solely devoted to addressing R&A issues. Nobel-winning cosmologist John Mather from NASA Goddard is our new chief scientist. Former NASA Ames division director Yvonne Pendleton was appointed to the SARA position. Other new people whose names you'll likely recognize in the new SMD front office include APL's Andy Cheng as the deputy chief scientist (for space science); JPL's Randy Friedl as the deputy chief scientist (for Earth science); and SwRI's Dan Durda who is serving as a special advisor for NEOs and human spaceflight.

Two common attributes these people all have, as do the other faces in SMD's new front office roster are very high energy levels and direct recent experience in the science community. Like myself, most of the new folks in SMD leadership have come to HQ this year from "the receiving end of the bureaucracy," and therefore understand the frustrations so many in the community have felt. That, combined with the energetic and proactive leadership that Jim Green was already providing since last fall as the new leader of SMD's Planetary Science Division, and Colleen Hartmann's incredible assistance as Deputy AA [Associate Administrator], have made it easy to make advances on numerous issues that had previously been in logjam or unable to even make it to the radar screen [a metaphor commonly used by space scientists: if a subject is "on the radar screen" it is being paid attention to].

Much of our time in the few months our new SMD team been in business has been focused on the FY09 budget to be released early next year. Since FY07 [the budget for the 2007 fiscal year] was half over when we came, and FY08 was already formulated and submitted to Congress by my predecessor, FY09 is the first budget that the new team can significantly impact. Since the FY09 budget is still in formulation, information about it is embargoed, but I hope you will see a variety of strong, positive advances when it is released early in February.

Finally, I'll close this note by giving examples which are of particular relevance to planetary scientists of some accomplishments that we've already made. These are generally small advances, but I hope they signal positive change in SMD's direction. They include:

  • Augmenting FY07 astrobiology efforts by $3 million.
  • Funding both of the Discovery Missions of Opportunity (MoOs) under competition.
  • Providing a first-ever centralized mailbox to provide [a place to send] complaints and other feedback about R&A programs (email [email protected]).
  • Authorizing a widespread implementation of 4-year grants.
  • Taking under study new postdoc on-ramp programs for young investigators.
  • Simplifying grant reporting and speeding up review notifications.
  • Initiating an effort to simplify mission AOs [Announcements of Opportunity]
  • Authorizing proposal debrief reports to be distributed to proposal teams in writing, rather than making proposers take notes from a debrief read to them.
  • Initiating an annual MoO AO beginning in 2008, to foster more international mission opportunities for US scientists.
  • Re-opening SMD monthlies to outside stakeholder organizations, including AAS, AGU, and DPS.
  • Working to bring an Outer Planets Flagship mission to launch.
  • Accelerating the long-awaited and highly-endorsed first Mars sample return, and adding sample caching capability to the MSL-09 [Mars Science Laboratory] rover.
  • Funding two further 6 month MER [Mars Exploration Rover] extensions.
  • Funding the LSSO [Lunar Sortie Science Opportunities] lunar experiment line that had previously been cancelled.
  • Taking under study how JWST [the James Webb Science Telescope, Hubble's successor, planned for a 2013 launch] can observe moving targets.

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