Emily LakdawallaOct 07, 2011

Notes from EPSC/DPS NASA Night

It's already the last day of the DPS/EPSC meeting in Nantes, France, and I've fallen seriously behind on writing up my notes. I thought I'd get some less pleasant notes out of the way before I returned to science. At every Division of Planetary Sciences (DPS) meeting in October and Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) meeting in March there is a "NASA Night," an hour or so in which representatives from NASA's Science Mission Directorate speak to the people whose missions and research they fund about their accomplishments and the political and funding climate for the coming years. Sometimes these are happy events but most of the time they're either tense or depressing.

Last night was one of the latter, at least from the NASA side (ESA presented too, because this is also a European Planetary Science Congress, and their story was, fortunately, not depressing.) I wrote down what NASA HQ's Jim Green said as verbatim as I could, and I'll reproduce these notes here; I'm putting Green's statements in quotes to differentiate from my commentary. There are likely errors and omissions, for which I apologize in advance.

Jim Green:
"I want to dwell a lot about the future and that requires both NASA and ESA scientists to listen carefully. We need to be part of the solution to economic issues.

"What has happened over last year? It has been fabulous year for NASA's planetary science. Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter transitioned from human exploration to science division....two fabulous comet encounters....we released the planetary decadal survey. That is an incredible milestone. It is designed to provide community consensus, designed to provide a road map for the future, and designed for us to rally behind if we decide that it is worth it...we launched Juno to Jupiter, and Opportunity reached Endeavour.

"What organization do you know that can lay this out a year or more in advance and knock 'em all off one by one? It's a thing to be proud of; success breeds success.

"OK. What's happened with discovery selections: there were 20 proposals; we've selected three for phase A study. CHopper, GEMS, and TiME. We have also now selected OSIRIS-REx for implementation." He acknowledged the passing of Mike Drake and confirmed officially that Dante Lauretta will now be OSIRIS-Rex's principal investigator; and he previewed Curiosity's launch.

"So now let's talk about the Future of NASA's Planetary Science. There is a tie-in with ESA, and I will not ignore that." He showed three budget scenarios that had been planned for from last year. "In reality we are in the we are in the ‘less favorable' budget picture, and we are trying to constrain that. We are going to focus on keeping operational missions going."

He showed a budget graph that I'd seen from the Decadal Survey that showed an increase of the budget with time, corresponding to, if I remember correctly, the Administration's proposed budget. The reality is a far worse picture, with the budget actually going down in coming years and then going out at a flat level for a decade.

"The ‘flat' budget really represents a billion dollar cut. We have to stop talking about some other discipline's flagship," by which he means the James Webb Space Telescope; there is much worry in the planetary community that the multibillion-dollar overrun on that mission is going to be taken out of the hides of future and even operational planetary missions. "We just lost a billion dollars. We have to concentrate on that.

"We have to start talking about the planetary decadal survey to our stakeholders, to people that matter. It's really important that we do that, because that's what [NASA] will fund. If we don't talk about our program, than it doesn't look like we're interested." The subtext was: if all you do is complain about JWST, no one will know what it is you are trying to get funded, or why you think it is important.

"I can tell you right now that it's probably going to be worse. The future of planetary science -- I can talk about it to OMB, I can talk about it to Congress, I can go anywhere. But as a civil servant I do not carry anywhere near as much weight as the scientists in our community. The sound of the community supporting planetary decadal is deafening; we need to get behind it and we need to support it.

"I'm very serious about this. I want to know if you support the planetary decadal. And if you can't support it, I can't justify the program, and I can't be your agent to support this program. I will seek another job; it's that simple. I'm telling you right now; I'm asking you; I'm asking you for a verbal vote; I'm asking you to support the planetary decadal. And if I hear any ‘no's, I'm going to seek another job." At this point the silence in the room was palpable. Green asked for the audience to speak up, and there were sufficient shouts of "yes" for him to carry on, and no audible "no's", but it was an anemic response at best.

"ESA has been a fabulous partner, they have been NASA's best partner. It is essential for us to work together. There is an enormous desire for us to nurture this partnership. We have to make commitments for funding, and in many cases I'm not able to do that. We are not in a political position for me to be able to give the nod to go ahead. That makes the situation extremely difficult. But we must find a way to move forward. It's essential for the health of the planetary community. ESA's putting forward a billion Euros for the Mars program. We are in a loop in which we are waiting for the administration to give us the nod to move ahead, an that's difficult right now. But for some odd reason, these stakeholders don't understand what planetary [launch] windows are all about.

"We are constantly rewriting the textbooks; if any one discipline has inspiration factor, it is planetary science.

"In the early 80s, NASA and ESA got together and they wanted to do something for comet Halley. Congress did not allow funding to go forward, and killed American participation. Here is what happened. Roger Bonnet said this: ‘Don't react with anger; react with vision.' I'm hoping our ESA colleagues will continue with that mantra. These political systems are complicated and don't always line up; I hope they'll find a way to move ahead. ESA did move ahead; they built Giotto, and ushered in our modern understanding of comets." I noted here in my Twitter stream that Green has basically just admitted that not only does NASA not have vision, but it does not appear to be capable of articulating one, and it is now up to ESA to step forward with a vision for the future of space exploration.

At which point he gave the podium over Luigi Colangeli, Head of ESA's Solar System Missions Division. My notes on Colangeli's presentation are much sparser. He showed a graph that indicates that ESA's budget increases about 3.8% year-over-year through the 2015-2015 Cosmic Vision period (this is a similar thing to NASA's Decadal Surveys), and that there are commitments for 3 billion Euros in funding for new missions – this is separate from existing commitments for the support of ongoing missions, and separate also from the individual contributions from member states in the form of scientific instruments that they fund domestically and contribute to missions.

Then came the Q and A part. Roger Clark was the first to stand up. He said there are rumors flying and he hoped Green could clarify the situation. "You didn't say things about existing missions. Rumor says that Cassini's going to have a 50% cut to science; some of us will walk away. At some point it's below the threshold of viability and it will destroy science. JWST overrun is so much that NASA will have to rob other programs to save it. It is important if it starts robbing our basic livelihood. Planetary science is on the verge here, and it's not just future missions, it's present missions too."

Green replied: "These are all related but in away you may not be cognizant of. If JWST wasn't even discussed, the [cost cutting] guidelines we gave missions are because we have already lost a billion dollars from our program. The agency priority for JWST means that cost will be split 50-50; 700 million will come from SMD over the next 7 years. That has to be decided how it will play out, and that is yet to be decided." He repeated again that it's important for scientists to advocate for their own programs, not just against JWST.

Athena Coustenis stood up next and said: "I have a message to Jim Green: please do not quit your job." There was applause from the room. The community appreciates his frankness, she said. Green replied: "It's the toughest job I ever had. I enjoy interacting with community. But in the last 8 months I've only traveled twice – to this meeting, and to KSC to talk about Juno [at launch]. Because I needed to be in the office each and every day to talk about what's going on."

Coustenis: "Cassini has been a demonstration of how successful we can be when we collaborate. All other operating missions are important too. I would like to hear from both of you how you think the future shapes up for operating missions."

Colangeli: "We have bilateral meetings, and these are exactly the moments when we need to find compromise."

Green: For JGO, NASA's participation was going to be through Missions of Opportunity. We want to continue to do that. As that mission evolves into JUICE we want to continue to have that opportunity." [JUICE is the unfortunate acronym for the latest, smaller incarnation of NASA's next Jupiter mission.] "I can't overstate how NASA planetary science division science mission directorate and even the administrator want to make that happen, but we have other circumstances that we have to work out. Regarding Marco Polo: as an asteroid mission, it has lot of national space interest, and interest from human exploration. We're struggling to find a way to come up with an agreement, I'm confident we can do that, but it's going to take longer than we hoped."

Candy Hansen stood up to re-ask Roger Clark's question about the rumored 50% cut to Cassini science. For context, I asked Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker what the story was here. She said that at issue is the fact that Cassini has already streamlined its operations as much as possibly can be; no more money can be taken out of what it takes just to fly the spacecraft. Science is only 25% of the present Cassini budget. So if NASA comes to Cassini and asks for a 10% cut in their budget, that immediately becomes a 40% cut to Cassini science.

Green replied: "In the next couple of years, the science budget is healthy. As the budget goes down, the projection has to go down. As we're able to find funding, we'll move it into certain areas. I don't believe it's going to go up in the near term. I hope – and this is the Polyanna part of me – that our budget won't look so disastrous over next decade, that the [political and economic] situation will improve, and that the NASA budget will improve. But I have to plan against NASA's budget. I have rockets I have to plan for that cost two or three times what they were before. I haven't bought them, I haven't negotiated them, I don't know what they are going to cost. There may be other [launch vehicles becoming available] that may be cheaper. TGO, OSIRIS REx, [a third thing that I forget] are all 300 million dollars, I have to budget for that. Once I make a buy, if we have anything left, we'll move that around."

Hansen also asked about Plutonium 238 production. Green: "We have been given approval by Congress to restart Pu-238. We'd like DOE to help share in that but if they don't we're going to continue to move forward. I will commit right now, New Frontiers 4 will use Plutonium." Hansen gave a thumbs-up.

Someone asked about cuts to R&A, which is Research and Analysis funding, the bread-and-butter funding that keeps scientists going and makes the most of existing data sets. Green: "I think it's disastrous to cut R&A, I want to keep it flat."

Someone – I think it was Hunter Waite – said that it's difficult to advocate for the decadal survey because it was predicated on a budget picture that is no longer true, and therefore is "DOA."

Green: "But it gives us decision rules that allows us to look at our program and find a way to keep it balanced. We're going to have to work to keep it healthy. I hope we don't have to turn off any missions. If our budget keeps going down, we'll face even tougher decisions. At least over the next couple years we need to continue to promote program."

At this point he paused and said that as a civil servant he is not asking and cannot actually ask people to talk to their congressional representatives; he's merely asking people to advocate. The next commenter stood up and said "I am not a civil servant so I will ask all of you to talk to your representatives. It's shockingly easy to meet your congressperson. They come to their local office a couple times a year. They want to hear how money benefits their district -- R&A, technology education. Link it to that and to exciting stuff that's going on."

Seriously, any of you who have read this far: Write a letter to your congressional representatives. A letter, not an email. Fax or mail it, or even better, follow this commenter's advice and try to get an actual meeting. I've never tried to do that before, but this sounds like a good time for me to gather up the patience and courage necessary to try.

Someone else asked about NASA's shaky commitments to the 2016 and 2018 Mars missions that Colangeli outlined in his talk. Green: "It'd be irresponsible for us to walk away from the table, when our partnership is 50-50. How do we go away from this and help you build a great mission?"

Colangeli: "We must go fast; 2016 is almost here. This is something that across the ocean we want to do, it is very important. The approach for this program is slightly different on the two sides. For us, it's technology-driven program for which we want to bring science on board. Tomorrow will be too late."

Green: "NASA and ESA are already spending money on 16. We're building instruments. We're caught now within a political process that hasn't caught up. And by the way, if we don't create this agreement with ESA, there's no guarantee that we get to keep the money [that has been allocated to Mars 2016], it's that bad."

And that pretty much ended it. I've never seen Jim Green so downbeat. What are the chances that things will look better by LPSC? Or by next year's DPS?

In the meantime, science carries on; and there's an awful lot of good science being done right now. More of that from DPS when I have more time to write.

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