Kepler’s Shaw Prize Winner Once in NASA’s Dog House

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What’s cooler than discovering thousands of exoplanets?

Winning a prestigious $1 million astronomy prize for discovering thousands exoplanets.

Cooler, still, considering that the prize winner, Kepler Science Principal Investigator William Borucki, was in NASA’s dog house two years before his planet-hunting telescope finally launched in 2009.

The Shaw Prize
The Shaw Prize

Borucki won the $1 million Shaw Prize in Astronomy on Monday (June 2) for his work discovering extrasolar planets and studying solar interiors. Dubbed the “Asian Nobel,” the $1 million prize is funded by Hong Kong businessman and philanthropist Run Run Shaw, who also awards prizes in the life sciences and mathematics.

Kepler, a life-long labor of love for the 76-year-old Borucki, has discovered more than 4,000 exoplanets since launching in March 2009.

Six years later, the Ball Aerospace-built telescope is still doing science. And Borucki, a civil servant of 53 years, just netted $215 for each one of the 4,637 exoplanet notches on Kepler’s belt.

Not bad for a mission that came close to being canceled.

Even better for a devoted scientist who found himself demoted and in the dog house when his team needed more money to complete a telescope critics once said could never work.

Selected in 2001 as a cost-capped Discovery-class mission, Kepler’s price tag rose several times before Borucki and his team went to NASA Headquarters in the spring of 2007 to ask for another $42 million.

Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, speaks during a New Horizons mission briefing, Tuesday, April 14, 2015 at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Panelists in the briefing discussed the goals, scientific objectives and encounter plans as the New Horizons spacecraft approaches its closest encounter with Pluto on July 14th after traveling more than 3 billion miles since its launch on January 19, 2006. The panelists also discussed the types of images and other data that will be collected during the flyby and when it can be expected. Photo Credit: (NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)
Alan Stern, a seasoned principal investigator, had limited patience for PI’s with limited experience.  Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Alan Stern, NASA’s tough-talking, newly installed associate administrator for science, wasn’t hearing it.

”My response was ‘no, the Science Mission Directorate no longer manages by open checkbook. You need to find a way to get it back in the box because I don’t have $42 million in the astrophysics program anyway,'” Stern recalled in a 2007 interview

Stern told the Kepler team to come back the following month with a plan for getting the job done within the revised budget NASA approved for Kepler the year before.

”On June 1, they came with a request for $54 million instead of $42 million, at which point I said: ‘Kepler project, apparently you don’t think I’m serious … If you don’t think I’m serious just come back to me with numbers like these again and that will be the end of the project.'”

Around the same time Stern was wrestling with Kepler, he served public notice to NASA’s principal investigators that they would be asked to step aside if they couldn’t keep their missions on track.

“If their view of a PI-led mission is that the PI is led around, then they are at risk and we will find somebody who can do it better,” Stern said during a May 2007 congressional hearing.

Although he didn’t mention Borucki by name, it was no secret that Stern was busy holding Kepler’s feet to the fire.

When the Kepler team returned to NASA Headquarters that July, they came with a plan for keeping Kepler on budget by scaling back some spacecraft testing, reducing schedule reserve, cutting six-months off the end of their planned four-year mission (a cheap trick, that) and making some management changes. Kepler prime contractor Ball gave up “millions and millions” of their earned fee, according to Stern, and Borucki — who at 68 was leading his first NASA mission — was demoted.

“They had to make some tough choices and it takes a professional program manager and not a rookie PI to do this,” Stern said at the time. “But he remains the science PI and will be in charge of the entire science investigation and lead it to victory.”

NASA's hobbled Kepler telescope continues to hunt exoplanets by using solar pressure along with the remaining two reaction wheels and thrusters to orient the spacecraft. Credit: NASA illustration
NASA’s hobbled Kepler telescope continues to hunt exoplanets by using solar pressure along with the remaining two reaction wheels and thrusters to orient the spacecraft. Credit: NASA illustration