Chris Scolese, a highly decorated engineer who became NASA’s top-ranking civil servant in 2007, relinquished that title in March and returned to the Goddard Space Flight Center to deal with what he calls “problems you can actually solve.”
Scolese, a U.S. Navy veteran who cut his engineering teeth on naval nuclear reactor programs, had spent most of his 25-year NASA career at Goddard — a sprawling spacecraft development and operations center in nearby Greenbelt, Md. — before moving to NASA headquarters in 2005 to serve as the agency’s chief engineer and then associate administrator, which made him the agency’s third-in-command.
Scolese’s time at headquarters included a six-month stint in 2009 as acting NASA administrator, putting him in charge of the agency between Mike Griffin’s resignation and Charles Bolden’s swearing-in.
While he enjoyed his time in Washington, Scolese said he’s glad to be back running a hands-on center like Goddard.
“It’s not that headquarters isn’t fun and beneficial,” Scolese said. “What you do there is very important. What you do here is very important. It’s just different.”
Scolese still had not finished unpacking his office when he spoke with Space News staff writer Dan Leone in late July.
How many people, including those at the Wallops Flight |Facility and other Goddard-managed locations, are on your payroll?
Our headcount for Goddard Space Flight Center, including all those facilities, is about 3,400. The vast majority of them are here in Greenbelt. There are probably not more than 300 or 400 that are not at Greenbelt. The contractor work force is about 6,000 to 6,500. Again, most of them are here.
What is Goddard’s 2012 budget?
It’s probably about $2 billion. That’s a combination of what NASA gets us and what we get in reimbursable work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). We do weather satellites for them.
How does your budget compare with last year?
We’re pretty flat. When you look at the NASA budget, you only see one line. You have to look at the NOAA budget to see the other.
Were you ordered to step down as NASA associate administrator, or did you volunteer?
Well, nothing is ever as simple as that. I’ve always loved the Goddard Space Flight Center and I liked the NASA centers anyway, so when the opportunity came up, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and I discussed it. We thought it was best for NASA and it was certainly good for me, so we decided to do it. It was a real discussion about what made the most sense for the agency and the center.
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) program office reported directly to you at headquarters. Did Bolden want you out here to keep a closer eye on JWST?
I know that’s part of it.
How is JWST doing?
JWST is coming along fine. We’re now, I believe, in a stable funding and requirements environment. They’ve been hitting their milestones. JWST is going to be hard no matter what. You can’t forget that we’re operating in 30 degrees Kelvin [minus 243 Celsius] with a 6.5-meter telescope. It’s a very complex system and there’s lots of testing still to go, but the team has been doing really well.
Now that former Marshall Space Flight Center Director Robert Lightfoot has your old job as associate administrator, how many times a week do you have to brief him about JWST?
Probably once a week we talk. We talk frequently. It’s an agency priority, you know? So we talk about it and talk to Charlie about it regularly.
What spacecraft are you developing at Goddard now, and what’s next up in the pipeline?
We’re very busy right now, and we have robust activities out until 2014 or 2015 with missions in house and out of house. Now we have the Global Precipitation Measurement mission, the Magnetospheric Multiscale mission and JWST that we’re building in house. We have some instruments that we’re working on for ICESat 2 and a portion of an instrument for the Soil Moisture Active Passive mission, and we also have the Deep Space Climate Observatory that we’re working on, which is really a refurbishment of an already built spacecraft. That keeps us very busy.
Down the road, there are a number of opportunities. At Goddard, like many of the science centers, we rely on announcements of opportunities for a lot of what we do, so we look to those and we have a pretty good win rate. We’re teamed with a number of organizations on getting ready for those announcements of opportunity that will fill the gap.
That’s the NASA side. On the reimbursable side, we work very closely with NOAA. We have the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite series and the Joint Polar Satellite System, and they’re fully moving along in the development of those — they’re not done in house, they’re contracted out, of course — but we’re right in the middle of it. With the U.S. Geological Survey we’re doing the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, which is going to launch hopefully in the early part of next year; January or February is our current target date but we’re working some technical issues and some manifest issues there.
You mean the glitches with the Landsat cryocooler and the electrical “anomaly” with one of the boxes earlier this year?
I believe we’re beyond the cryocooler issue now. They’ve gone off and repaired that and tested it, and the Thermal Infrared Sensor’s cryocooler is installed and ready to go. The electrical issue that happened, we’re pretty much over it, but of course it ate up some schedule. So where we would have liked to have been, we’re not quite there yet. We still have some testing to do. We have full-up thermal vacuum testing to go.
There’s a proposal before the U.S. Senate to put NASA fully in charge of procuring NOAA’s weather satellites. What would that mean for Goddard?
So what it really means is, “Where does the money end up?” Is the money in NOAA’s budget and it comes to NASA Goddard for procurement of the satellites? Or does it go directly into NASA’s budget for the procurement of the satellites? It carries advantages and disadvantages both ways.
Some things change. If the funding came directly to NASA, then the procurement decisions would all be clearly within NASA. Not the requirements; those will still have to come from NOAA. But today, in order to get some things done, we have to agree with NOAA and the Commerce Department and all the way up the chain. If it changed, when we went off and had to get a contract, we’d only have to go through one contracting organization, one legal organization — NASA’s — instead of two.
A Space News reader suggested I ask you why NASA didn’t go with a more advanced imaging suite for the Landsat Data Continuity Mission and opted instead to build — his words — a “pile of junk.” Your response?
Ha! I don’t think we’re building a pile of junk. There’s always a debate about how much more data you can get if you do things differently. We did an experiment with the Earth Observing-1 satellite with hyperspectral imaging, and it showed great promise. And of course we want to go to the areas where there’s a lot of promise. At the same time, we have a responsibility to the operational agencies, in this case the U.S. Geological Survey, to maintain the continuity of their data sets. Then we have technical constraints. Hyperspectral imaging is fantastic, but it creates a huge data volume. And getting all that data down is still difficult. So I would say we’re not launching a piece of crap; we’re launching something that addresses, in the best way possible, all the constraints of science and technology and the operational community.