John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator for science. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Profile | John Grunsfeld
Associate Administrator, NASA Science Mission Directorate

John Grunsfeld is at the tiller of NASA’s $5 billion-a-year Science Mission Directorate at a time when the agency is celebrating great mission successes, recovering from great planning failures, and preparing as it always does to send more billion-dollar robotic spacecraft out into the solar system.

It is a task the shuttle astronaut and self-described “Hubble hugger” has taken to with relish since his appointment in 2012. Recalling his days aboard the shuttle, when he helped repair the Hubble Space Telescope on orbit, Grunsfeld regularly dons his blue astronaut flight suit to serve as cheerleader-in-chief for NASA science missions.

As he celebrates the great success of the Mars Curiosity Rover and the New Horizons Pluto probe, missions developed under the watch of his predecessor, Grunsfeld faces a few big challenges: Keep the flagship James Webb Space Telescope, which has suffered more than its share of budget and managerial problems, firmly on track for launch in 2018; get Mars 2020, a Curiosity rover clone tweaked for surface sample collection, to the red planet in 2020; and maintain a robotic presence among the outer planets after the Cassini Saturn probe ends its mission in 2017.

Grunsfeld spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Dan Leone.

You’ve been back at NASA since 2012. How would you appraise your track record as a steward of the budget?

Over the last roughly four years, over 12 major missions, we’ve been able to hit the cost mark and schedule mark to within 0.1 percent. That’s when you look at those missions as an ensemble, meaning not every mission is right on the money. Some are slightly over, some are slightly under, but the spread is very small. There are some notable exceptions where the program was rebaselined, like the James Webb Space Telescope. That happened right before I came in. So that’s not included in that list of a dozen missions.

So what did you change when you came in?

Prior to about five years ago, the processes were different, the methods of estimating how much something would cost were not as well refined. Now we’re doing joint confidence level estimates for these large missions before we even start the really hard work. If we say a certain mission is going to cost $500 million at the 70 percent confidence level, that means if you were to build lots of copies of that mission, 70 percent of them would come in on confidence and on schedule. So we’ve turned cost estimation and schedule estimation into a science.

Why does the James Webb Space Telescope cost $9 billion?

JWST artist's concept
JWST artist’s concept. Credit: NASA
JWST artist’s concept. Credit: NASA

The James Webb Space Telescope is going to be truly transformational, but it’s a really hard telescope. It’s a cryogenic telescope. It operates at 40 kelvin — colder than Pluto, by 7 or 8 degrees. The technology that goes into it is really hard and complex. It’s also taken a long time.

We had 10 technologies we had to prove before we could really claim that we could build the observatory. On the other hand, it was mismanaged during its early phase, and it was mismanaged not so much by the technical part but in the cost. The cost wasn’t estimated properly, and we didn’t have the kind of formalism we have now to understand how much it should cost. But I have great confidence that we are going to arrive for launch in 2018 with a successful telescope.

What is the most pressing science question not currently served by any funded NASA mission?

The one area that I think is in active study but we’re not actually doing anything today is the ability to do high-resolution spectroscopy of a planet around a nearby star outside this solar system. That’s really a next-generation effort. But today we’re developing the technology to enable that. Hopefully in my lifetime, we will have the capability to get a high-resolution spectrum of an Earth-like planet around a nearby star and be able to measure the relative ratio of continents and oceans, if the planet has one, to see seasons and polar caps and be able to understand whether there is life on that planet. I think that’s the most amazing thing that’s just beyond our reach, but very close.

What kind of mission is required to do that?

I think to do that, you need a successor to the James Webb Space Telescope. We went from Hubble at 2.4 meters in diameter to James Webb at 6.5 meters in diameter, and it’s a question of getting enough light. That cannot be done from the ground. And this new telescope wouldn’t be a cryogenic telescope, so it’ll actually be a lot more affordable than James Webb. And it could be a segmented telescope, launched in pieces. Perhaps astronauts would go out and assemble it. Whether that’s built depends on whether the search for life in the universe is the highest priority in the next astrophysics decadal survey [to be published later this decade].

There’s no space shuttle like there was for Hubble. How would NASA launch that telescope and how would the astronauts get there to service it?

Cassini artist’s concept
Cassini artist’s concept

I think we’re building all the building blocks, like the Space Launch System. You gotta get a lot of parts up there. So that would be a great rocket to lift those parts. Even the Orion vehicle can stay out in a near-Earth orbit for 28 days. That’s plenty of time to build a telescope. I could probably build a telescope with a couple other folks in three or four days.

Some people who work in planetary science are concerned that there will not be a NASA presence in the outer solar system after the Cassini mission at Saturn ends in 2017. Europa Clipper, the only funded outer-planets mission on the books, will not get to its target until the mid-2020s at the earliest. What else is on tap?

If you wanted to know what our outer solar system exploration program is in planetary science for Neptune and Uranus, for instance, or icy moons of Saturn or Jupiter, probably the most important is the James Webb Space Telescope. It’s going to give us insight into these planets. Weather forecasting on Neptune, for example. James Webb will probably be as oversubscribed as Hubble is, so scientists will have to compete for it.

The only place where NASA appears to have multiple flagship missions planned is Mars. Why are there so many Mars missions?

Mars is to me a uniquely different planet in our solar system. I see Mars as the only viable planet humans could live on some time in the future. I see our Mars science program as trying to understand Mars as a very complex planet ­­— which it is, from a pure planetary science perspective ­— and to inspect it for habitability. Curiosity has determined definitely that Mars was habitable 3.5 billion or 4 billion years ago. It had an environment that if Earth microbes were there, or we were there, we could have lived there. Even today, it has enough surface gravity that you could live a normal life. It has all the resources you could want for humans to live there. I could easily see in 20 years that we could have astronauts who are planetary scientists on the surface of Mars. That would substantially increase the pace of scientific discovery.

I received an anonymous letter recently. The sender claimed to be a senior solar scientist and expressed dismay on the behalf of the community that you selected Steven Clarke, who is an engineer and not a scientist, to lead NASA’s Heliophysics Division. Why did you pick Clarke for the job?

I also get such letters. I care deeply about heliophysics, but because we have had a lot of troubles with various people who have led that division, we’re trying to make sure we have a sound team. Steve is an extraordinarily talented leader of people. He understands NASA processes. He was leading our Joint Agency Satellite Division, which acquires weather satellites for [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]. He demonstrated really wonderful capabilities, knowing NASA and the government, and working with other agencies. I saw those skills as just as important as heliophysics, because we do have many talented scientists in heliophysics that can give him advice.

Is Pluto a planet or isn’t it?

The International Astronomical Union declared Pluto a dwarf planet, for whatever reason. Interestingly, we call Jupiter a giant planet, Saturn a giant planet. So I joke that we’re kicking out Jupiter and Saturn from the planet club too because they’re giant planets, not just planets. Just because a chihuahua is a miniature dog doesn’t make it not a dog. It just has a more particular name.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.