Emily LakdawallaMar 14, 2008

LPSC: Wednesday: NASA Town Hall with Alan Stern

An anonymous friend contributed this writeup on the presentation Wednesday at lunchtime at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference on NASA's spending on space science, with Science Mission Directorate associate administrator Alan Stern. --ESL

Alan Stern began this town hall with a brief presentation that focused on budget issues. He noted that as a result of recent high-profile mission cost overruns, NASA HQ will be paying more attention to financial review of mission proposals to try and catch potential cost overruns before they happen. For example, MSL (Mars Science Laboratory) is currently about $200 million over budget, which is in addition to the relatively small cost overrun that was the subject of much consternation in the fall (the ChemCam instrument was cost-capped and required to continue at a reduced level of development). Phoenix, slated to land in May, also suffered from non-trivial cost overruns.

But in addition to woes related to mission cost overruns, several positive steps were taken by HQ. Funding was partially restored for astrobiology, and NASA research grants were also lengthened from 3 to 4 years. The idea behind the latter is that scientists would have to write fewer overall proposals. The downside is that since the grant turnover time is now longer, it is more difficult for new investigators to "break in" to existing grant programs. Jim Green also increased R&A (Research and Analysis) funding by 30% in one year, which is an almost unprecedented increase.

Many of the questions directed at the NASA Administrator Mike Griffin on Monday night regarded the large spending cuts to the Mars program. Wes Huntress recently chaired a panel that graded NASA's programs. While NASA's Mars program got an "A," a lot of other things (such as outer planets research) got grades of "C" or "D." So In order to improve these failing grades and accommodate a flagship-class (>$1 billion) mission to the outer planets (Jupiter, Saturn, and beyond), funding for Mars missions will decrease after MSL is launched.

Alan had some choice words regarding the Mars funding changes. He reiterated several times that "The Mars program is not going out of business." He also stated that regarding mission budgets, "you can't put 6 pounds in a 5-lb bag." In the case of missions like MSL, it seems like the aim was to try to put 10 lbs in a 5 lb bag. But the good news for the Mars community is that it is only mission-related expenditures should decrease. Overall, more money will be going to scientists, not engineers. The engineering community will presumably shift focus to next NASA priority, such as an outer planets flagship mission. But scarily, the commitment to fully fund and protect Mars science has one glaring exception: MSL cost overruns will affect the entire Mars budget. Gulp!

In other mission-related news, as announced previously there will be no Scout mission for Mars in 2011 due to an internal conflict of interest. This Scout opportunity, which will be devoted to aeronomy, has been pushed back to 2013. One of the questioners after Alan's prepared remarks asked if MSL cost overruns could affect the launch date. The answer was that it may. If MSL isn't ready to go in 2009, Alan stated that he would rather wait until the next launch opportunity rather than sign off on something not ready to fly. An option I had not heard before is to launch in 2010, orbit the Earth for 1 year, and then execute the Mars transfer burn. [EDIT: this wasn't quite correct, what would actually happen is that after a 2010 launch MSL would be in a near-Earth solar orbit, returning exactly one year later for an Earth gravity assist to a Mars arrival in 2011. --ESL] Although this would result in the same end mission profile as launching in 2011, at least it would "get it out of California."

Overall, the tone was encouraging, especially in comparison to some "NASA Nights" in previous years at LPSC. Sitting in the audience, one got the sense that the community's concerns were being considered at the highest levels, and that the folks at NASA HQ were working hard to try and balance the often contradictory aims of the various components of the planetary and space science community.

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