Profile: APL Striving To Fill a Niche In Shrinking Robotic Budget

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  Space News Business

Profile: APL Striving To Fill a Niche In Shrinking Robotic Budget

By BRIAN BERGER
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 14 March 2007
02:13 pm ET


Walt Faulconer

Civilian Space Business Area Executive, Applied Physics Laboratory

W alt Faulconer left Lockheed Martin in early 2005, ending a 26-year career there to help the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) navigate a NASA landscape newly transformed by the vision for space exploration. By the end of 2005, APL had snagged a plum role in NASA’s lunar robotics program. Working under the direction of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, APL was picked to build a robotic lander bound for the Moon in 2011.

That project, however, is now in jeopardy as a cash-strapped NASA considers raiding its lunar robotics budget to help fund development of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and pay mounting cargo-delivery bills for the international space station.

Aside from the lunar lander, APL has just one other NASA mission in the pipeline: a pair of $500 million Radiation Storm Belt Probes slated to launch no sooner than 2011.

Faulconer spoke with Space News staff writer Brian Berger during a recent visit to the Laurel, Md.-based lab.


Has APL given up on building a robotic lunar lander?

The best case is that we’ll have to wait another year before getting started. The worst case is cancellation. It all depends on how NASA’s budget situation sorts out. We do know, however, that it’s not going to be a 2011 mission. We’ve also been talking to Johnson Space Center, Houston, about making it more of a technology risk-reduction mission for the eventual lunar lander, instead of focusing, for example, on proving that there’s ice at the poles.

If the mission is tied more to what NASA needs for the human missions, 2013 is probably a better fit for that kind of roadmap. NASA originally programmed $400 million a year for the lunar robotic program. If they divert some of that money to pay these other bills, obviously that’s going to slip things out. But in the big scheme of things, I have a hard time believing that within the $60 billion to $70 billion NASA is going to get over the next four years that we can’t afford a $400 million mission to retire risk and enhance mission success for the human missions.

Does APL have any spacecraft missions in the pipeline besides the lunar lander?

We just launched the Stereo mission, which is using two identical spacecraft to give us our first stereoscopic view of the sun and improve the tracking of coronal mass ejections. Last summer we started work on the Radiation Storm Probe mission slated for launch in late 2011 or 2012. It’s part of NASA’s Living with a Star program and, again, involves two spacecraft that are going to spend almost their entire lives in the Earth’s radiation belts, which is not a friendly environment.

If Democrats, as expected, increase NASA’s science budget at the expense of exploration, won’t APL benefit?

I’m a big supporter of the vision for space exploration and I understand the choices NASA Administrator Mike Griffin is making given his limited resources. But at the same time I do agree the current political winds favor a balanced program. If you go back and read the vision for space exploration, it calls for robust robotic and human exploration — not just the human exploration at the expense of the robotic exploration.

What is the funding outlook for the smaller competitively selected NASA science missions well suited to APL?

Questionable at best. It’s important for the science community that NASA continues to release new Discovery and New Frontiers announcements of opportunity every 18 to 24 months. That would mean new announcements for the Discovery and possibly New Frontiers programs in 2008, but with all the budget problems NASA has to deal with, it’s not clear they will be able to maintain that cadence.

What does the decline in NASA science missions mean for APL?

For starters, it means we can no longer rely solely on the NASA Science Mission Directorate for projects, which is one reason why the lunar lander program was important to us.

We’ve also been doing a lot more partnering with industry and other NASA centers. In the past, APL has had a reputation for going it alone, which was not entirely deserved. We’re teaming with Marshall Space Flight Center, Ala., on the lunar lander; we are working some small satellite initiatives with Ames Research Center, Calif., and looking at some lunar lander technology development with Johnson Space Center. We’re also currently partnered with the Southwest Research Institute and Orbital Sciences Corp. on the Great Escape proposal NASA recently selected as one of two finalists for a 2011 Mars Scout mission opportunity.

So we have to do what everybody else does. You partner more. Sometimes you lead. Sometimes you follow.

Is APL’s civil space work force too large for the amount of NASA work ahead?

No. We are down to 450 from a peak of about 600 people when we were working on New Horizons, the two Stereo [Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatories] spacecraft, and the Mercury-bound Messenger mission all at the same time. I’m concerned that if we drop below 450, we will lose the critical mass needed to be here for NASA. At the end of the day, NASA has three unmanned mission centers: Goddard Space Flight Center, Md., the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Calif., and us. Each of us has a niche. Ours is taking lower cost approaches to missions, like the Mercury and Pluto flybys, that were expected to cost billions of dollars to accomplish.

Does NASA’s renewed emphasis on proven technology hurt an innovator like APL?

NASA is not buying missions right now that have a lot of new technology, and there’s not a lot of extra budget for technology development, so that does hurt us a little bit. But we are still ultimately about coming up with innovative solutions, even if that means using off-the-shelf technology in new ways. For example, the Messenger mission applied some of the latest radio frequency antenna technology used for missile defense.

What other NASA projects are on the horizon for APL?

NASA envisions launching its next flagship-class planetary mission in the 2017-2018 timeframe. Europa retains its front-runner status, but the Cassini mission has generated substantial interest in Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus , so NASA is taking a closer look at those destinations. APL is leading the Titan study and Goddard is leading the Enceladus study. Those reports, due out in the fall, will lay out a roadmap for the next planetary flagship missions.