NASA Science Chief Puts Principal Investigators on Notice

NASA's new science chief, AlanStern, used his first appearance before Congress to put principal investigatorson notice: keep your missions on budget or prepare to step aside.

Stern, anexperienced principal investigator (PI) with his own NASA-fundedspacecraft hurtling toward Pluto, said scientists lucky enough to havetheir mission proposals selected by NASA have an obligation to put theirresearch duties on hold and focus on getting their spacecraft and instrumentsbuilt.

"If theirview of a PI-led mission is that the PI is led around, then they are at riskand we will find somebody who can do it better," Stern told the House Scienceand Technology space and aeronauticssubcommittee during a May 2 hearing on NASA's science budget.

Holdingprincipal investigators accountable for the budget performance of theirprograms is just one of the ways that NASA intends to make better use of theroughly $5.4 billion a year it currently devotes to science, Stern said. Theagency also has begun requiring its regional field centers to be moreconservative when they estimate costs for the programs they are assigned to do,he said.

Asambitious as the NASA science program is with 52 spacecraft in orbit and 41 newflight missions in development for launch over the next seven years, Stern toldlawmakers, the agency "would in fact have more missions in development on thesame budget were we better able to control costs, and I am setting out to dothat."

The three scientists who shared thewitness table with Stern praised his ideas for getting the most outof NASA's science budget. But they also said NASA in general, and Stern'sScience Mission Directorate, in particular, need more money to do all that theyhas been asked to do.

Lennard Fisk, a former NASA sciencechief who chairs the National Research Council's Space Studies Board, notedthat $3 billion to $4 billion was taken from NASA's science budget to pay for shuttle return to flight andcompletion of the International Space Station."There is no way to remove that much money from the budget without causingdisruptions to ongoing programs and a distortion to the balance amongprograms."

Fisk said the obvious remedy forwhat ails science at NASA would be to "get back the money that was lost."

"A moreconstructive way to make that statement is to note how inadequately NASA as anagency is funded," Fisk said. "It is being asked to do much with too little andas a result all components of the agency, including science, are sub-optimallyfunded. We should all make it a strategic goal to provide NASA with the fundingthat is required."

Rep. MarkUdall (D-Colo.), the subcommittee chairman, clearly had gotten the messagebefore the hearing had even begun. In his opening statement, Udall pointed outthat in the three years since U.S. President George W. Bush unveiled the Visionfor Space Exploration, the White House has cut $4 billion from its previouslyplanned requests for NASA science expenditures.

"At a timewhen NASA's science programs offer the promise of major advances in ourunderstanding of the sun, our solar system, and the universe beyond, we riskdoing long-term damage to the health of those programs if we are not careful,"Udall said. "If we are going to ask our nation's space science program toundertake challenging and meaningful initiatives, we are going to need toprovide the necessary resources."

The subcommittee's rankingRepublican, Rep. Ken Calvert of California, also said he thinks NASA is underfunded. But he also expressedsympathy for the decisions NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has made within theconstraints of the agency's limited budget.

"I don't fault NASA for making thetough choices it did, but it shouldn't be that way," Calvert said, calling onthe Bush administration to provide more funding for NASA.

Stern said he intends to bring greaterefficiency to a Science Mission Directorate many of his fellow scientists havelamented as woefully cash-strapped. "I want to turn heads while I amhere," Stern said. "I want to produce landmark scientific achievements and tomake my directorate and its various projects run more efficiently and staywithin their cost boundaries."

Sternidentified rising launch costs, cost growth in mission development and unrealistic cost estimates putforth by the so-called decadal surveys that shape NASA's science agendas as themajor challenges facing the directorate.

But he alsovowed to increase funding for research and analysis--a budget area especiallyhard hit in recent years to the chagrin of grant-funded scientists andtechnology developers--and put more support behind the agency's suborbitallaunch programs in order to "train space scientists in the art of spaceflight and bridge the 2010 to 2012desert in orbital launches and provide opportunities for technology developmentand demonstration."

Scientistshave been calling on NASA since early last year to restore funding for small-and medium-sized missions selected through periodic competitions.

In a showof good faith, Stern said NASA intends to move an Explorer-class missioncompetition two months to October of this year.

NASA alsoplans to use the forthcoming Explorer announcement of opportunity to imposemore stringent experience requirements for scientists wanting to lead missions,Stern said.

"We arecalling for a minimum experience level for the principal investigatorsthemselves." Stern said. "Previously there was no minimum experience level, soa scientist who had not been involved in spaceflight could write a sufficientlygood proposal and lead a team to win and sometimes that gets you in trouble.You may wake up in the morning and want to do brain surgery but doesn't meanyou can do it."

Fisk,alluding to the role NASA oversight plays in driving up mission costs, said hesupported Stern's plan to establish stricter prerequisites for principalinvestigators provided the agency then stands back and allows them to perform.

"Chooseexperienced PIs. That's a good thing," Fisk said. "But if they are reallyexperienced, let them do the program in such a way that they can produce[the mission] in the most cost-effective way possible."

Launchcosts also were discussed during thehearing, with Calvert asking how NASA intends to meet future launch needswithout the Delta 2 rocket.

Stern saidthe current Delta 2 inventory is sufficient to fly out all the missions NASAhas on the books through 2012 and noted that the agency has been using air-launchedPegasus rockets for smaller payloads.

"We arelooking at some alternatives to or additions to those possibilities to give uslow-cost access to space again for small- and moderate-sized missions," Sternsaid. "Decisions have not been made but I can assure you that it's importantnot only to the Science Mission Directorate but also the larger agency."

Scientists are eagerly awaitingNASA's decision. "It has to be a robust solution," Fisk said. "It can't besimply keep the Delta 2 alive because that would probably be too expensive."

Daniel Baker, a heliophysicist atthe University of Colorado, Boulder, said shifting all NASA launch traffic tothe larger Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets also presents problems.

"Going tolarger launch vehicles immediately adds tens of millions of dollars to thosemissions' costs. By taking the cap off mass constraints, it can allow forunexpected growth in missions," Baker said. "I think we would be well advisedto try to restore that capability or make sure we have something comparable tothe Delta 2 to enable these missions."

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Editor-in-Chief, SpaceNews

Brian Berger is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews, a bi-weekly space industry news magazine, and He joined SpaceNews covering NASA in 1998 and was named Senior Staff Writer in 2004 before becoming Deputy Editor in 2008. Brian's reporting on NASA's 2003 Columbia space shuttle accident and received the Communications Award from the National Space Club Huntsville Chapter in 2019. Brian received a bachelor's degree in magazine production and editing from Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.