While NASA’s human spaceflight program is capturing most of the headlines these days, times are equally busy in the space science arena, with flagship missions nearing launch or entering their peak development years and climate monitoring targeted a major cash infusion.
Ed Weiler, who oversees NASA’s science portfolio, plans to use the funding increase to accelerate work on measurements identified as priorities in the National Research Council’s Earth science decadal survey, in part by initiating a series of low-cost scientist-led Venture-class probes.
Meanwhile, Weiler is gearing up for launches next year of some $4 billion worth of planetary missions, including the lunar Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory, the solar-powered Juno probe to Jupiter and the nuclear-powered Mars Science Laboratory rover.
But Weiler has headaches to contend with as well, including continued cost growth and schedule slips on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), NASA’s next-generation astronomy flagship. JWST’s ballooning costs are seen by some as a threat to other missions funded within NASA’s astronomy budget is expected to remain relatively flat for the next five years.
Weiler spoke recently with Space News staff writer Amy Klamper.
What is your reaction to the recent National Research Council (NRC) report urging NASA to, among other things, sink more money into the early development phase of missions to control costs?
I lived through the great observatories and I saw all the sins of the past. I saw Hubble overrun 300 percent. Its original Phase C development start cost was $420 million. It came in seven years late at $1.6 billion. The JWST is a factor of 100 better than Hubble. We knew this was going to be a technological challenge, so we tried something we never tried before: We put in 40 to 50 percent of the run-out cost into Phase A and Phase B definition and early design development. We determined we would not start Phase C development until we were at Technology Readiness Level-6 on every critical technology. And we had a super-long Phase A, a super-long Phase B, we got to Phase C and Technology Readiness Level-6, and the rest is history. On something like a one-off JWST, you’ve got so many variables that you don’t even know you have.
Is the continued challenge of accurately estimating costs going to affect the NRC’s forthcoming decadal survey of astronomy missions?
The bottom line is I think the National Research Council and NASA have agreed that before we put out another decadal, let’s try to put a little more meat into these cost estimates. What I’m hoping is that we might get cost estimates that we might be able to trust to the maybe 50 percent level. That would be a huge change.
How might JWST’s cost growth affect the decadal survey?
Obviously it would slow down anything that came out of the decadal. But I want to say this unequivocally, at least at my level: I do not intend to make a decision to pump more money into Webb without taking it to the community that’s going to be affected.
Are you raising the possibility that JWST could be scaled back or canceled?
There’s no more money in 2011. The president’s budget is on the Hill. That means something’s got to give. We [could] relax testing, without taking any more risks; we [could] relax expectations, if that’s appropriate. We also have an independent cost review team looking at what’s going to be the true cost. I don’t have all the answers. I’ve done what I can. I’m at wit’s end. I mean, this sounds like an excuse, fine, but Mars Science Laboratory is a classic example. Who would have thought that the motors on Mars Science Laboratory would cause all the problems they caused?
Some have argued that maintaining cash reserves on programs acts as a performance disincentive for contractors. What is your view?
Cost reserves are supposed to be used in project management theory to solve the unknown unknowns. They should not be used just to cover underestimated labor costs or underestimated time to meet a schedule. On JWST it’s been some of the former but more of the latter. But I thought the technology would have been the biggest problem. The fact that we got to Technology Readiness Level-6 on the schedule we thought we would is just phenomenal. We are not modeling a star. Modeling a star is easy.
Besides the Venture-class missions, what else is in store for Earth science as a result of the proposed funding increase that would begin next year?
We’re also going to speed up other projects, including the Soil Moisture Active and Passive satellite. We’re going to maintain the schedule for the Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite 2, and we’re speeding up dramatically the Deformation, Ecosystem Structure and Dynamics of Ice, and the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory, though what we did is reduce them to the minimum size required to accomplish the [Earth science] decadal survey objectives.
NASA has had trouble making the transition from experimental to operational Earth observation measurements. Is there now an expanded operational role for NASA in this area?
Clearly we’re playing a role in sustained Earth science measurements. We’re not only building the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, but we’re also building an engineering copy of the instrument that will be flight-worthy so eventually we could put it on a spacecraft and have continuous carbon measurements. Plus the Active Sensing of Carbon Dioxide Emissions over Nights, Days and Seasons satellite is in the budget — another follow-on. So we’ll be doing carbon/CO2 measurements for a long time. Eventually, hopefully, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will take those missions and that technology over. I think the issue there is we’ve got to have continuity, and if there’s not a clear person or agency leading it then we’ve got to keep that continuity going.
Will Landsat continue to be a NASA-funded mission?
The plan is that the U.S. Geological Survey, or the Department of the Interior, will be the funding authority but they will use us for management and procurement. They do the mission operations. They’re going to use us — like NOAA uses us as project management — for the follow-on to the Landsat series that’s being negotiated now.
Does the president’s new direction for human spaceflight present new opportunities for space science research?
We do things based on competition and peer review. If the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, when they finally get a budget and we know what’s going on, decide to go to some object and they’ve got room for a science instrument, then we would make that space available through one of our announcements of opportunity.
NASA Administrator Charleshas asked the Science Mission Directorate to pitch ideas for using the international space station as a platform for research and technology demonstrations. What, if any, opportunities exist?
Space station is a platform; some people might find ways to use it that are of value. We’ve got an Explorer announcement of opportunity that’s going to go on the street very quickly, and a Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences announcement that’s on the street right now basically saying if you’ve got ideas that could go on station instead of a sounding rocket or a balloon, we’ll compete them.
But to put an astronomy instrument on there you’ve got to have a pointing system that’s constantly tracking the object; it’s got to be able to survive the contamination environment; it’s got to be able to point and hold stability while astronauts are on board. It’s not very stable for Hubble-class science, but potentially for instruments that don’t have pointing requirements, like cosmic ray experiments. For planetary, it’s hard to conceive of doing in-depth Mars sample return science. For heliophysics it’s the same thing. But technology development is an area, and NASA Chief Technologist Bobby Braun is planning to use the station for some of that.
Some in the science community have expressed concern that science conducted aboard the space station will come at the expense of other missions. What is your response?
Sure, if we take a station experiment in the suborbital program, that means there’ll be less money for some rocket or balloon experiment. But by definition the one we take for station will be better science than the one that would have been proposed for rockets or balloons. One thing that’s unequivocal — there’s no new money specifically only to do station science. We’re trying to recognize we’ve got an opportunity up there; we don’t have any more new money, but we might be able to do better science by doing it this way.