Rob Strain



NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is a busy place these days. The
, space center is leading or otherwise involved in 10 missions due to launch over the next 15 months.

Center director Rob Strain anticipates even more activity once President BarackObama lines up his space priorities, which industry and NASA officials expect will bring a renewed emphasis to the types of Earth science missions that Goddard has come to specialize in.

Strain, who took the top job at Goddard in August after Ed Weiler was recalled to NASA headquarters in nearby Washington to run the Science Mission Directorate, said Goddard’s 3,100 civil servants and 6,000 contract employees are ready to step up their work to help explore the solar system and study the causes and consequences of global climate change. Strain came to Goddard after leading the space department at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

Shortly after arriving at Goddard, Strain was thrust into the middle of deliberations over whether to push ahead with an October 2009 launch of the $1.9 billion Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) or delay the mission until 2011.

Although MSL is led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Goddard is supplying an important suite of instruments. NASA announced in December that it would accept a 26-month delay, a decision with budget implications for the agency’s broader portfolio of science missions, including some of those under way at Goddard.

“Being one member of that community, we’ll all have to pitch in and help out,” Strain said.

Nevertheless, the center is focusing on a planned mission to study Mars’ atmosphere called Maven, concepts for the next big telescopes to be launched into space, and a proposal for the next medium-class New Frontiers outer planets mission. The center also will continue to support missions such as the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) and its precursor, the NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP), a joint mission by NASA, the U.S. Air Force and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Strain, whose 25 years in the aerospace business also include executive positions at Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. and Fairchild Space and Defense Co., spoke recently with staff writer Becky Iannotta.

How do you think Goddard will fare under President Obama?

When you look at Goddard, with its space science and Earth science missions, I would not trade any place in the space business for where we are here. We knew that whoever was elected was not going to wake up one day and not care about Earth science. I think we’re well positioned, depending on funds and what the new administration really wants to do.

How would you step up the pace if asked?

We couldn’t do it instantaneously. We would ramp up not through adding a lot of civil service, but by utilizing the contractor community around here and strengthening partnerships. Within a stone’s throw of here in any direction you can hit NOAA the Naval Research Laboratory, APL,
, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. Through partnership with that whole community we can take on more.

How will the two-year delay of the Mars Science Laboratory affect Goddard missions?

We don’t know the full effects yet. The Science Mission Directorate is sorting that out right now. We would have delivered our Sample Analysis at Mars suite of instruments for MSL on time, but now we’ll have a little more time to do additional testing that will raise our confidence level from 98 percent to 99 percent. We will have to carry our team a couple more years, so there will be a management challenge to redeploy some of the people and get them back at the right time, and that will cost a little bit of money before it’s all over. The decision to delay was hard because the team has been on a near-death march for a year. After we decided to delay MSL there were some really long, sad faces, but it could be worse. If you’re in this business you have to be OK with delayed gratification.

What are the most challenging missions Goddard is involved in?

There’s nothing more challenging than the Hubble servicing mission and the James Webb Space Telescope. Both are one-of-a-kind and really, really challenging. No one’s come close to doing anything like either of those before. After that, I would say the instrument suite we are providing for MSL, which is probably one of the more complex, if not the most complex, instruments we or anyone else has ever built.

Is the James Webb telescope exceeding its budget?

No. There’s a fundamental misunderstanding about when we set the price of a mission. As an agency, we don’t go with a price until a mission is confirmed, meaning after we present the risks and the cost estimates to Congress and others so they know what we are going forward with and the funding we will need. For years and years before that, people have different concepts and scientists and engineers throw numbers around, before there’s even a procurement strategy. We’ve had some challenges, but we are on cost since the confirmation and have had no serious technical problems. It’s meeting all milestones so far and is on schedule.

What will growth at Wallops Flight Facility mean to Goddard and the science community?

We’re pretty excited that Orbital selected Wallops for the Taurus 2 launch range and we’ve been working with the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority to help with development of the facilities. Taurus 2 can help fill a hole that will be left when the Delta 2 rocket is phased out, so the science community will have Wallops to get quicker – and in some cases cheaper – access to space. We’ve really got to support development of Taurus 2 and Space Exploration Technolgies‘ Falcon 9 rocket to have some choices for small and mid-sized science missions. I think there’s a market for $50 million or $60 million launches. If we get trapped into only having $150 million or $175 million launch vehicles we can’t do a lot of science missions.

What is the status of the NPOESS Preparatory Project, and is it still on schedule to launch in 2010?

The launch vehicle is great and all the instruments are doing well except the Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), which is not in a good way. I don’t have the whole history, but with folklore plus what I’ve seen it has been one ridiculous thing after another.

There is a problem with building instruments that is industry-wide, but VIIRS happens to be in the top 10 percent of the worst cases. The sad part is the spacecraft and the other instruments are in good shape. But we couldn’t launch without VIIRS and have the same mission. There’s a group of people with the Air Force, NOAA and NASA that are thinking about alternate strategies, which include taking a lesser VIIRS, taking no VIIRS or finding something else. It’s premature to guess and they’re just doing studies, but I think we have to allow for the possibility that it doesn’t get there or it doesn’t get there on a timeframe anyone can stomach. So what do you do? Smarter people than me are thinking about it.

NPP is under review, and it’s manifested in 2010 but not in a way that anyone would bet their house on.

What is the greatest concern among contractors working with Goddard?

Like all of us, they are waiting to see where the new administration will take us. I spent my career at one level or another supporting Goddard and its missions, and my sense is the contractors are at pretty good peace with the partnership, the inclusion and their business base. We think, and I think that they agree, that we’ve found the right balance. We’re not trying to get into their space and we’re not uncomfortable with them having largely full participation in our missions. It’s something we care about because if they’re not healthy and successful, we’re going to pay. The one thing we have to be careful about is to make sure we have enough opportunities for them to compete and win occasionally.

How would you like to see Goddard change during the next five years?

I would like to see us come through this busy time and continue to ramp up our footprint in space and Earth science. I’d like to believe that we would become better at collaborating with academia, with national labs and other centers, and that we’d lead a lot of other missions. We can probably improve our cost performance and schedule, and we can collaborate better. There are some things on the edges that we can get better at, but if I’ve got something that’s working, I don’t want to screw that up.