NASA streamlines management requirements for some science missions

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WASHINGTON — NASA has enacted new policies intended to streamline the management of low-cost science missions with the highest tolerance for risk.

The new policies for what are known as Class D missions, briefed at scientific meetings last month and a town hall meeting at NASA Headquarters Jan. 3, will reduce the number of reviews and level of documentation levied on such missions to give them more freedom to take innovative approaches.

“We want to make sure that we’re not over-managing these missions,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said at a NASA town hall meeting Dec. 12 during the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in New Orleans. “What I mean is that we don’t weigh down the missions with more process than is needed and suffocate the innovation than enables them.”

Class D science missions are defined as those that cost no more than $150 million, excluding launch, and are intended to be relatively short-lived and with modest complexity that could be reflown if needed. They stand at the opposite end of the risk spectrum from Class A missions, such as the James Webb Space Telescope and Mars 2020 rover missions, with high cost and complexity and no chance of a reflight.

Class D missions include smallsats and instruments, such as the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) Earth science smallsat constellation launched in December 2016 and the Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) instrument installed on the International Space Station in June 2017. Upcoming Class D missions include another Earth science smallsat constellation called TROPICS and the Mars Cube One (MarCO) cubesats that will accompany the Insight Mars lander mission launching in May.

Under the revised guidelines, Class D missions will be subject to fewer major reviews, known as Key Decision Points. Missions will also have to submit only the final version of project documentation to NASA for approval.

One review that will remain in place is Key Decision Point C, which sets the cost and schedule baseline for the mission, but will instead use a 60 percent confidence level for those estimates versus the 70 percent used for other missions. “I’m retaining that,” Zurbuchen said of that review during the AGU town hall. “The simple reason for that is that if we’re not looking like we’re going to fit into the box, I’m going to make the decision to discontinue it.”

Zurbuchen emphasized that the streamlined requirements still mean projects should follow best practices for management, but without the same level of rigor required for larger missions. That came up during a discussion at the Jan. 3 town hall meeting about the use of a system called earned value management.

“What we’re trying to do is really do the right practices without the administrative overhead and certification and the ‘waterproofing’ that is required for a complex mission,” he said.