Kepler Team Cuts Costs, Avoids Cancellation
Kepler with distant solar system.
Credit: NASA

Threatened with cancellation, the team building NASA's Kepler planet-hunting telescope found a way get the spacecraft to the launch pad by early 2009 without a new infusion of cash.

Kepler consists of a single instrument, a 0.95-meter Schmidt telescope optimized for scanning a field of stars for signs of potentially habitable Earth-size planets. Integration of the spacecraft gets under way this summer, with the telescope due to be installed a year from now. A Delta 2 rocket is slated to launch Kepler into an Earth-trailing orbit.

The price tag for the Discovery-class mission has risen several times since its 2001 selection due to a combination of factors, including management problems, technical challenges and budget fluctuations beyond the project's control. In mid-2006, believing Kepler's problems were largely in the past, NASA accepted a 21-percent cost increase for construction of the telescope, pushing the total cost of the mission above $550 million. The launch date also slipped another five months past its original 2006 target to November 2008.

This spring, the Kepler team ? which consists of Ball Aerospace & Technology, Ames Research Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) ? told NASA science chief Alan Stern it needed an additional $42 million and an extra four months to finish the spacecraft.

"My response was 'no, [the Science Mission Directorate] no longer manages by open checkbook. You need to find a way to get it back in the box because I don't have $42 million in the astrophysics program anyway,'" Stern recalled in a July 9 interview.

Stern told the team to come back in June with a plan for getting the job done within the revised budget NASA approved for Kepler last year.

"On June 1, they came with a request for $54 million instead of $42 million, at which point I said: 'Kepler project, apparently you don't think I'm serious ... If you don't think I'm serious just come back to me with numbers like these again and that will be the end of the project.'"

When he testified before Congress in May, Stern made clear that the program was all but canceled at that point ? and that was before the Kepler team responded to his call to cut costs by asking for even more money.

After rejecting their June 1 request for another $54 million, Stern gave the Kepler team a month to take another crack at putting their program "back in the box."

On July 6, the Kepler team returned to NASA headquarters here to present their plan.

"They took us very seriously," Stern said. "They came back with no cost increase."

The Kepler team, according to Stern, proposed staying within the budget NASA approved in 2006, by cutting six months off the end of the four-year mission, scaling back some spacecraft testing, reducing schedule reserve and making some management changes.

In addition, Ball Aerospace & Technologies, the Boulder, Colo.-based firm building the spacecraft and instrument, gave up "millions and millions of dollars of their earned fee," Stern said.

The plan passed muster with Stern and the other NASA officials who examined it ? including Stern's science advisor John Mather, his deputy for programs Todd May and a representative from NASA's Office of the Chief Engineer ? as a clear and viable path to the launch pad.

Ball spokeswoman Roz Brown declined to say how much fee the company agreed to forfeit or whether the project would still prove profitable.

"I can't be specific on the financial stuff," Brown said July 10. "Profit is just one tool. We were determined that we were going to get the program back on track and we are getting the program back on track. We heard NASA loud and clear."

Kepler will still miss its November 2008 launch target by two or three months, but Stern said he could live with that.

"The only thing more important than keeping Kepler marching towards launch is to have responsible management in the Science Mission Directorate," he said. "I won't write checks any more. There's a new team in town and we don't work that way."

While reducing testing and cutting schedule reserves might sound like a recipe for failure, Stern said neither action would put the success of the mission at risk.

"They found some places where they could responsibly de-scope ? where testing was icing on the cake," he said. "They [also] had very lavish schedule reserves by normal industry standards. They elected to cut themselves back to JPL standards."

The new plan also irons out Kepler's convoluted management structure, long since acknowledged by NASA as a contributor to Kepler's woes.

When NASA selected Kepler in 2001 for funding under its Discovery program of scientist-led, cost-capped missions, the agency required Ames Research Center ? the San Francisco-area NASA field center that the proposed Kepler ? to pick either JPL or Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., to help run the project.

With JPL added to the mix, Kepler essentially had, as Stern put it, "three bosses": the JPL project manager, the Ames project manager, and Kepler's rookie principal investigator (PI), Ames scientist Bill Borucki.

To simplify matters, NASA is putting the entire Kepler team under the direction of Kepler's JPL project manager Leslie Livesay, a seasoned engineer who worked on Mars Pathfinder, was the flight system manager for Deep Space 1, and ran Starlight before that ambitious three-telescope project was reduced to a ground-based technology demonstration.

Borucki's role on Kepler, meanwhile, has been reduced from mission principal investigator ? essentially the top boss ? to science principal investigator.

"They had to make some tough choices and it takes a professional program manager and not a rookie PI to do this," Stern said. "But he remains the science PI and will be in charge of the entire science investigation and lead it to victory."