Advancing Independent Research


  Space News Business

Advancing Independent Research

Space News Correspondent
posted: 27 July 2009
11:21 am ET

— When James Burch left NASA in 1977 to continue his investigations of space physics at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in
San Antonio
, the independent, nonprofit organization had no space program and no personnel devoted to space research. Today, SwRI’s Space Science and Engineering Division, which Burch leads as the vice president, includes 350 people and $100 million a year in work, largely supporting NASA’s space science program.

That growth occurred gradually, Burch said, as scientists and engineers who joined SwRI became principal investigators for space agency experiments and, eventually, for entire space science missions. The first mission led by anSwRI principal investigator was NASA’s Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aura Global Exploration, or IMAGE. Burch, the principal investigator for that project, oversaw the 2000 launch of what was the first spacecraft to collect images of plasma in the Earth’s magnetosphere, a region of space controlled by Earth’s magnetic field.

Since then, SwRI principal investigators have been selected to lead other NASA missions. Alan Stern, associate vice president of SwRI’s Space Science and Engineering Division and former NASA associate administrator for science, oversees New Horizons, a mission launched in 2006 to explore Pluto, its moons and the Kuiper Belt. David McComas, SwRI assistant vice president for the Space Science and Engineering Division and former founding director of the Center for Space Science and Exploration at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in
New Mexico
, directs the Interstellar Boundary Explorer, a mission launched in October to probe the outer boundary of the solar system.

In addition, Scott Bolton, director of SwRI’s space science department, is the principal investigator for NASA’s Juno mission set for launch in 2011 to investigate Jupiter’s structure and evolution. SwRI engineers also are building two Juno instruments: the Juno Auroral Distributions Experiment and the Ultraviolet Spectrometer.

Burch serves as principal investigator for the MagnetosphericMultiscale mission, a space agency program scheduled to send four spacecraft with identical instruments aloft in 2014 to study the physics of magnetic reconnection, a process that converts the energy stored in the magnetic field to heat and kinetic energy of charged particles.

One factor propelling SwRI’s leading role in development of space science instruments and missions has been the institute’s internal support of projects not yet mature enough to win NASA or National Science Foundation funding,
said. “People who have ideas are really encouraged to pursue them,” he added. “It’s like a bunch of entrepreneurs working inside an institute.”

Scientists with good ideas receive funding to work out technical issues. In 2008, SwRI spent $7 million on independent research with the space division claiming a significant chunk of that funding. “I can’t tell you the number, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if we were using half of the IR&D [independent research and development] money,” Burch said. It is not just the seed money that helps scientists succeed,
added. “You have the talent around and the experience around that can help people bring ideas to fruition.”

Before SwRI teams submit proposals to NASA, scientists and engineers build a flight configuration of the hardware and prove its components work, Burch said. “I think that’s what gives us our edge,” he added. “It’s the science missions where all the fun is and where all the money is. We need to be involved in those and we need to have new instrumentation to get involved.”

Even if the potential payoff is a decade away, SwRI officials are willing to spend money on new equipment. For example, SwRI has invested millions of dollars in a mass spectrometer for planetary research designed to offer higher resolution than instruments currently in use. “We haven’t been successful yet in getting it selected on a mission, but I’m sure we will be,” Burch said. “When we do, it will be because we were willing to put a couple million dollars of our own money into it.”

As the number of missions led by SwRI has grown, so has the organization’s need for facilities. In 1988, the Space Science and Engineering Division moved into its own 10,200-square-meter building in
San Antonio
. This summer, scientists and engineers will move their offices into an additional 2,800-square-meter building next door. An additional 50 SwRI space division employees work in the group’s Planetary Science Directorate in
Most of the scientists in
conduct research in planetary astronomy and solar physics, Burch said. All the hardware is built in
San Antonio
, however, where the SwRI’s space division has its own engineering group, he added.

Engineers often work on a specific science mission or instrument for three to five years during the development process, Burch said. Once that mission is launched, those engineers either support another SwRI science team or conduct their own projects, developing computers and power systems for
Defense Department or commercial spacecraft. SwRI engineers built spacecraft avionics for NASA’s recently launched Kepler planet-hunting mission, the agency’s upcoming Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer space telescope mission and Longmont, Colo.-based DigitalGlobe‘s Worldview-2 commercial imaging satellite, due to launch this fall. One of Burch’s goals is to retain a stable of talented engineers instead of hiring and firing individuals with every mission.

“Scientists don’t have to worry because when they finish building an instrument or mission, they begin working on the data analysis. There is still funding after the launch,” Burch said. “But for the engineering people, the day a spacecraft is launched, they are out of work.”

Unless, that is, they have new projects to tackle. SwRI’s growth has kept scientists and engineers busy. Burch expects SwRI employees to remain occupied in the years ahead. “Our goal isn’t to grow but to keep expanding our capabilities, and to do more and better things,” Burch said. “If we are not successful, we are going to shrink.”