W hen NASA announced last summer that it would streamline its bureaucracy into something better-suited for the president’s new space exploration vision, the biggest immediate change was the decision to merge the Earth science and space science enterprises more than a decade after they had been split apart.
With a $5.5 billion annual budget, the new Science Mission Directorate makes its boss, Al Diaz, responsible for a third of NASA’s resources. The merger also gave him challenges few would envy as he attempts to balance existing programs with the agency’s evolving new exploration priorities. As director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Diaz spent the last six years dealing with programs as diverse as the Earth Observing System and the Hubble Space Telescope.
Since the merger took effect Aug. 1, Diaz has pared the combined organization down to three broad divisions: Earth-Sun System, Solar System and Universe. He said one of his big challenges is producing a consolidated science roadmap for the new organization while doing his level best to make sure that the scores of programs under him remain on schedule and on budget.
Diaz spoke with Space News staff writer Brian Berger on the day that the National Academy of Sciences released a report calling for NASA to reinstate a canceled space shuttle servicing mission to Hubble.
Will NASA use the shuttle to service Hubble?
NASA is continuing to monitor the Hubble batteries and other subsystems, and is assessing improved techniques for maintaining scientific operations should further subsystems fail. Currently we are proceeding toward an early April preliminary design review of the robotic servicing option, which is the next step in the assessment of our plans. Our assessment also will take into account the National Academy findings.
What challenges have you encountered merging NASA’s space science and Earth science organizations?
There are three things I concentrate a lot of my time on. The first is keeping the trains running on time. We have two very successful organizations that have active programs under way, and the worst thing I could do would be to interrupt the productivity of those programs.
Second has been coming up with a strategy that offers all the stakeholders the opportunity to be involved in a dialogue about what the future of the Hubble Space Telescope ought to be.
The third is transformation. We are not simply merging Earth and space science. The hoped for outcome is a true transformation of each organization’s culture into a single culture that enriches both. For example, space science has been largely driven by discovery whereas Earth science has been driven by the need to make accurate predictions. If you think about where we are heading with the space program and exploration, we are going to be looking to space science to develop the same kind of predictive capabilities that Earth science has spent the last decade or two working on.
Is the authority Congress gave NASA this year to shift money between programs to solve budget problems a green light to ignore lawmaker earmarks and other directed spending?
No. But we are going to offer Congress an operating plan for 2005 that we think is the right plan for this year and the years ahead.
Isn’t that the purpose of submitting a budget request every February?
This was a very unusual year. We ended up with an omnibus appropriation that gives NASA the $16.2 billion the president requested and has some report language that suggests some redistribution of that money. But in the end, it also offers the NASA administrator the opportunity to have a dialogue with Congress through the operating plan process and that is what we intend to do.
Between Hubble, the shuttle and more than $400 million in earmarks, is there any scenario where you are not canceling programs in 2005?
We are working very hard to come up with a plan that allows continued progress and doesn’t terminate programs. For how that comes out you need to wait and see the outcome of the operating plan in development.
The 2005 budget year is already four months old. Can NASA do much more than spin its wheels while it goes back and forth with Congress over the operating plan?
First we make sure that there aren’t any programs that are spinning their wheels. We will try to make sure that resources are available to keep the trains running on time.
In some areas where we are awaiting specific conclusions from the operating plan, we are not spinning our wheels there either. We are staying busy and making progress, albeit at a pace consistent with the schedule we have. So far we are in a situation where all the discussions we are anticipating in the operating plan sustain the program we would like to have.
Given the space exploration vision’s early emphasis on the Moon, doesn’t it make sense to throttle back on Mars exploration?
No. Mars still represents a very important element of the vision and a very important element of the whole Science program. The vision includes an additional investment in Mars as well as the introduction of the lunar robotics program in preparation for the lunar human missions. There is no consideration of throttling anything back in that regard.
Will the New Horizons Pluto probe launch in January 2006?
We still hope so. We’ve worked an instrument issue and think we’ve got that in the box. And plutonium availability is another major issue we continue to work day-to-day. I think we will be watching this program all year.
NASA has been asked by Congress to look into building and launching a clone of the New Horizons probe in order to explore more of the Kuiper Belt region. Does the agency have any interest in such a mission?
There is a lot of interest in the outer planets community in doing it. The question is whether it is feasible given the circumstances. We are going to do the assessment to find out if it is.