Emily LakdawallaOct 11, 2007

DPS: NASA Night: Sweetness and light

On Tuesday night, after the poster session had ended (and, not incidentally, after all the meeting attendees had had their chances to get their two free drinks), was the traditional "NASA Night," an event that I viewed with trepidation. At the Division of Planetary Sciences meetings and also at Lunar and Planetary Science Conference meetings, there is one evening when representatives from NASA Headquarters make short presentations about what's going on at HQ and what things the science community can expect in the coming year or two, and then open it up to questions. The relationship between the science community and NASA Headquarters has been very sour in recent years; I wrote before about one particularly ugly NASA night that happened a year and a half ago at LPSC, when scientists were angry about cancellations, angry that promised funding was then withdrawn, stranding scores of students, angry about massive cuts to Research and Analysis budgets (bread and butter to scientists), including a whopping 50% cut to astrobiology research, and angry that there seemed to be no way for the science community to make themselves heard at Headquarters, much less for the community to be involved in the tough decisions that had to be made.

Well, things have changed, a lot. A majority of the people leading NASA Headquarters and its various divisions have been replaced in the last year, and all four of the people on stage for NASA night at DPS 2007 were new to Headquarters, but not new to the science community. They quickly had the gathered scientists eating out of the palm of their collective hand.

The Fantastic Four were introduced by Guy Consolmagno, chair of the Division of Planetary Sciences. There was Alan Stern, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD, as opposed to ESMD, the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, which covers human spaceflight), who recently came to Headquarters from the Southwest Research Institute to replace Mary Cleave, and who is probably best known in this space as the principal investigator on the New Horizons mission to Pluto. There was Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division of the SMD (one of five divisions; the others are Management & Policy, Heliophysics, Earth Science, and Astrophysics), who recently came from Goddard, replacing Andy Dantzler. There was Yvonne Pendleton, who left a position heading up astrobiology at Ames to fill a new position at SMD called the Senior Advisor for Research & Analysis, basically becoming the interface between the science community and SMD. And there was Andy Cheng, who is Deputy Chief Scientist for Space Science.

These people received resounding applause from the several hundred scientists gathered in the room, and proceeded to make presentations that were music to scientists' ears. Alan started off by listing his four core objectives. First, he promised to work to get more science done within the existing SMD budget, by avoiding budget overruns and by helping people to spend less time writing proposals. Second, he wants to ensure that the Vision for Space Exploration -- also known as Moon to Mars -- succeeds. He remarked that it is critical to have a healthy human spaceflight program; and that, for the science community, the primary task is to build a lunar science community where there currently is almost none. He compared it to the stagnation of the Mars community in the two decades following the Viking missions; he said we need to put more students into lunar science now, to make sure there will be enough mature scientists to do the work when humans begin returning to the Moon.

Alan's third goal was to promote American leadership across all of SMD's science disciplines, a remark that was a bit jarring in a room containing many foreign scientists; but it was consistent with Alan's core belief in competition being a driver of success. And fourth, he promised to create a better workplace at Headquarters, to encourage more people from the science community to "come there and make a difference."

He continued to say that the single most important thing to do in order to accomplish these objectives is to control the costs of missions. In the budget cuts of the last few years, he said, something over three billion dollars disappeared out of SMD's projected future expenses over five years; it was this disappearance that resulted in the painful cuts that prompted The Planetary Society's "Save Our Science" campaign. He said, though, that when he looked at the books upon his arrival at Headquarters, he found that the previous five years had seen 5.4 billion dollars in cost overruns, dwarfing the budget cuts. He said that in his first two months as Associate Administrator, three missions came in with requests for $40 million in overruns, and one mission (this one, I know, refers to Mars Science Laboratory) came in for $75 million more. "We have to select proposals that will make it on cost, and we have to hold people's feet to the fire, because if we don't do that, we're always slaughtering the innocent, putting off the future." By controlling overruns, he said, he would seek to increase flight rates, launching more new missions every year.

His other major goal, Alan said -- and this is where he really had all the scientists on the edge of their seats -- is to "repair R&A," that is, Research and Analysis, pretty much the sole source of funding for scientists who are not on active missions to do research. Striking a pose and shaking his fist, he said, "You will never see R&A cut while I am Associate Administrator." (Applause.) "The reason for that is because R&A is how we do the science. The only way we make discoveries is to spend the time analyzing the data. Space science is not about launching rockets, it is to collect the data and put it in the PDS. It begins with the R&A and without that the taxpayer doesn't get their value out of it and the field doesn't advance." He went on to say that we need to make sure that missions fund their science; that data analysis must be part of missions and cannot be cut in order to make up cost overruns elsewhere.

Alan stepped down and Jim Green came to the podium. I hadn't heard his name before, probably because he studies magnetospheres, a field I don't pay much attention to; but his background also includes an eight-year stint as head of the National Space Science Data Center at Goddard, which is the central repository for NASA's archived data. Jim began by saying, "I am delighted with how things have worked out for science in last year. With Alan in the team I believe we are at a historic crossroads." His presentation detailed several actions coming out of SMD in the next year, most of which were music to the scientists' ears.

Outer planets mission studies have been submitted, and will be downselected in December; this will make us one step closer to finally starting the next flagship mission. Next, he said that they are going to be changing the way they issue so-called "Mission of Opportunity" calls for proposals. Missions of Opportunity are the way that NASA funds American scientists to work as co-investigators on foreign missions, and for reasons I have never understood, the calls for proposals have historically been issued as part of calls for proposals for Discovery- and New Frontiers-class missions (maybe also other mission lines too, I'm not sure). Anyway, Jim said they are now planning to issue stand-alone Mission of Opportunity Calls for Proposals on a yearly basis. "This will allow us to keep track of what's going on with our community and their relationships with other agencies. It allows us to have a presence on an ESA or JAXA or Indian mission. Times have changed; it used to be just us and ESA, with an occasional JAXA mission. Now more agencies are out there, and we need to change with the times."

He then announced that SMD is returning funding to Research and Analysis programs, to the point that they are returning to 2003 funding levels; they have put back 15%, and may get up to 20%. In the specific area of astrobiology, which was cut by 50%, he said they have been able to find the funding to boost that back up 29%.

He made my ears perk up when he remarked that they are also going to increase support to the archiving of mission data to the Planetary Data System, where it is accessible to everyone (not just scientists, the public too). "There is a lot of data that doesn't end up in the PDS, and we will pay to get it in there," he said.

Jim was followed by Yvonne Pendleton, who mostly presented on how the people in the room can get answers or make themselves heard and so forth; I think that the fact that her position exists at all is more relevant here than the specific comments she had to make to the community.

Then Alan came back to the podium, saying that he and Jim were going to make several announcements of good news in the hopes of blunting any sharp questions they might receive later. He announced that the are re-initiating the planetary suborbital rocket and balloon programs, which are ways to fly experimental hardware to high altitudes, above most of Earth's atmosphere, for testing; this will allow people who want to develop new kinds of hardware to "get their TRLs up." TRL refers to Technology Readiness Level, a measure of how confident we can be that new kinds of hardware will work on a space mission. Alan also measured that these programs will allow young workers (or old workers, he remarked) to get experience that will make them stronger candidates as principal investigators on future missions. He also announced that 30 orbits are being made available on Hubble for lunar science; these orbits will not take place until 2009, but scientists need to tell the Space Telescope Science Institute what kinds of requirements they may have, because STScI will have to write new software to enable Hubble to observe the fast-moving Moon.

They announced the formation of a new NASA Lunar Science Institute (NLSI), like the existing NASA Astrobiology Institute, to boost the number of researchers doing work on lunar science, in advance of the return of human explorers to the Moon. Most lunar researchers are of Apollo vintage; very few younger workers have been entering the field, because there have been few dedicated missions and little available R&A funding. The NLSI is designed to spur the development of more lunar scientists.

And they announced that the James Webb Space Telescope -- the successor to Hubble, with a launch currently scheduled for 2013 -- is now going to have a "moving targets capability." That is, it will be able to track objects within the solar system that move quickly enough to blur during observation. Without this capability, JWST would be useless for planetary science.

And they announced that they are offering to fly a small Canadian Mars mission, with "full US science team participation," by 2013. They didn't expand on this, so I'm not totally clear on what it means; I guess it means it'll be Canadian-built and -managed, but with a lot of participation by US scientists, and launched on a US rocket, but I'm not sure.

And Jim announced that, as former head of the National Space Science Data Center, he appreciates how new science can result from re-analysis of old data; so they are broadening the already-planned New Horizons Jupiter Data Analysis Program to cut across all data in the Planetary Data System related to Jupiter, including Cassini, Galileo, and the Voyagers, and are doubling the program's funding to make this possible.

As you might imagine, all of these announcements received much applause.

Guy Consolmagno returned to the podium to close the presentations, saying "I can be as cynical as anybody in this room, and we've heard lots of promises from people on these stages in the past. But we have seen a real change in the past year." The first questioner to stand up was Mike Belton, a very senior cometary astronomer who has participated in missions from Mariner to Galileo to Deep Impact, so it was striking when he said, "What a change! I really feel good about this."

But, he continued, "there were some things that were not said today, and I think they ought to be brought out. First: facilities for R&A. You've talked about supporting individuals; that's fresh air. But facilities is another problem. We've seen outriggers diappear from Keck, we're now hearing stories about the loss of Arecibo, and nobody wants to pick it up. I know Ed Weiler felt strongly that missions were it for NASA, but his policies undermined the process of gathering ground-based and earth-based data from substantial facilities on the ground. Since NASA has supported them for the last 40 years, the ground based facilities really need your support."

Jim's response probably failed to satisfy Belton. "With respect to Arecibo...we believe it is an NSF [National Science Foundation] responsibility, and we would be delighted to see" NSF to reconsider its decision to stop funding Arecibo.

Another scientist stood up to express concern about the fact that the had heard that ongoing orbital missions, particularly the great observatories like Spitzer, are now going to be required to compete for mission extensions every year. How could he protest that -- by email? Alan's response, which was satisfactory to some in the room, but presumably not to the questioner: "There are 94 flight mission in SMD; 54 are flying, and 40 are in development. Let me tell you something: competition rocks. It's the basis of everything we do in science, from peer review to the way we rate proposals. If we don't [re-compete every mission], we're writing blank checks in perpetuity as long as these energizer bunnies keep going." He noted that the Spitzer "warm mission," which is what will follow after Spitzer's sensitive infrared detectors run out of coolant, is bookkept at $260 million over two years. He said that that seemed like a lot of money to him; but that it wouldn't be his decision whether or not to extend Spitzer or any other mission, that it will be "the community" that will decide how NASA will allocate its budget, in a peer review process.

Very much to my surprise, no one asked about the recent descopes of several science instruments on Mars Science Laboratory, which were made in response to their budget overruns. I talked to both Alan and Jim privately about these cuts while I was at DPS, and both of them said that they did not want to make the cuts but that they were firm on not continuing to write blank checks to missions that ran over budget; and that the descopes were made after running through a list of engineering and programmatic cuts, and were made strictly by going down a list of least- to most-painful cuts that had been put together by an independent study group [Note: earlier I had incorrectly stated that this group was MEPAG, but I was wrong about that] until they had cut what they needed to stay within the existing budget and not rob other programs. Alan is very, very firm about this new policy. He told me that, as one example, when he restarted an orbital X-ray observatory mission called NuSTAR, he included with the congratulatory letter that he sent the team a specific list of the descopes SMD would make if they ran over budget. And Jim told me at length about how they have been trying to deal with the cost overruns of Kepler, and his chagrin at the fact that their overrun is so large (roughly half a billion dollars), they essentially ate up another Discovery mission that will now not happen.

So that's what happened at NASA night. There were smiling faces and lots of applause and a palpable sense of relief that the bad old days were over as it ended. Now, although there were a lot of scientists in the room, they were a biased sample of the science community; DPS contains very few sessions on the terrestrial planets (Mars, the Moon, Venus, and Mercury). I expect that the presentations would have been a little different, and the questions would have been much more pointed, at a Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, where I am sure they would not have escaped being questioned about MSL. And, personally, I am not yet convinced that science is best served by not robbing other programs (painful though that may be) to save some of these science descopes on MSL, although I do hear and sympathize with Alan and Jim's arguments that the mission cost overruns must end. It's a tough policy question, and I don't have all the information; there's no public information for a lot of the budget numbers being discussed. My higher-ups at the Society are looking into it.

MSL aside, I can't help but be delighted at what sounds like a refreshingly pragmatic and sane point of view from NASA Headquarters. These are people who have not yet had the spirit beaten out of them by bureaucracy. I asked Alan how long he plans to stay at Headquarters, and he said he didn't know for sure but implied that it would be several years. Later, as I was conversing in a group with Jim Green, someone remarked cynically that whoever succeeds Alan will probably wind up reversing all his work; but Jim laughed and said that Alan is changing so many things that it will take "at least ten years" to undo the work that's been done so far.

The Planetary Fund

Your support powers our mission to explore worlds, find life, and defend Earth. Give today!