NASA Opens Competition for New Class of Earth Science Projects

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WASHINGTON — NASA will open the first round of competition this summer for a new class of low-cost Earth science projects designed to stimulate development of new instrument technologies for orbital and airborne environmental-monitoring missions.

Opportunities to compete for new Venture-class projects will come every two years, with NASA planning to alternate project selections between space and airborne. The space agency will spend about $150 million on each round, allowing for selection of up to two space projects or multiple airborne projects with each solicitation.

“This is a new program that will do complementary science, fill in gaps where the decadal missions don’t necessarily do all they should do, and it includes things like small airborne instruments, large airborne instruments and even small satellite missions,” NASA’s science chief, Ed Weiler, said April 7 during budget briefings at NASA headquarters. “That will be the first for that program, and it will come out this summer.”

The idea of the Venture-class missions was borne out of the National Research Council’s 10-year set of priorities for NASA Earth science missions, known as the decadal survey. Berrien Moore, co-chair of the panel that conducted the decadal survey, hailed NASA’s plan for carrying out the panel’s recommendation.

“We chose the name ‘venture’ because we thought of what a venture capitalist does: push risk, develop technology and stay lean,” Moore said. “We wanted to see if this couldn’t be done to break out new ideas, almost to the level of people thinking, ‘this can’t be done.'” U.S. President Barack Obama’s five-year budget plan calls for about $13 million for the Venture-class program in 2010 and an average of roughly $74 million through 2014, which Moore said is a sufficient financial commitment to the program.

NASA is putting $21 million of the $1 billion it received as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signed into law Feb. 17, toward getting the program started this summer so data collection can begin as early as 2010. Previous plans anticipated a later start date, with data returns no earlier than 2013, said NASA spokesman Steve Cole.

The creation of the Venture- class program is part of a larger effort to devote more money to NASA’s Earth science missions. Scientists complained that Earth science funding eroded during former President George W. Bush’s eight years in office. Obama has pledged to reverse that trend, proposing to add some $1.2 billion to NASA’s Earth science budget over the next five years.

The Venture-class missions will be constrained not only by their budgets, but also by their schedules. Whether airborne or space-based, projects have to be completed within five years of receiving funding, Cole said.

Acting NASA Administrator Chris Scolese likened the Venture-class program to NASA’s Discovery and Explorer programs, both of which are designed to offer frequent, low-cost flight opportunities for the space sciences.

“It is analogous to what we do with Explorer and Discovery, but it is focusing on Earth,” Scolese said during April 7 budget briefings.

NASA will focus initial efforts on obtaining proposals for collection of airborne data via piloted or unpiloted aircraft. The first call for proposals will go out this summer, followed by selection of several proposals in early 2010. The number of proposals NASA selects will depend on how many fit within the $150 million cost cap.

Meanwhile, the space agency already is planning its next solicitation to be released sometime after October 2010 for up to two spaceborne instruments to fly on separate satellite missions, Cole said.

Moore said he expects this summer’s competition to generate a wide-ranging response from universities and laboratories. The program could result in interesting pairings from academia, private industry and possibly venture capitalists, he said.

“We’re going to see a different set of technologies, a different set of questions and it will uncover new ways of getting information from aircraft and balloons that we haven’t thought of,” Moore said. “This is risk-taking, it’s different types of approaches and I think that’s good for the agency.”