A Space Maverick Takes the Reins at NASA Ames

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Profile| Simon “Pete” Worden
Director
NASA Ames Research Center

W hen NASA Administrator Mike Griffin tapped retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Pete Worden to run the agency’s Ames Research Center this past spring, there were high expectations of a prominent role for the Silicon Valley facility in reconnoitering the Moon in advance of a planned return of human explorers.

NASA Ames Research Center Director Simon "Pete" Worden. Credit: NASA
NASA Ames Research Center Director Simon “Pete” Worden. Credit: NASA

Ames, better known in recent years for esoteric research in aeronautics and supercomputers than managing space missions, had been assigned responsibility for NASA’s Robotic Lunar Exploration Program (RLEP). Worden, meanwhile, came with a reputation as a maverick determined to shake up the status quo with missions that can be pulled off quickly and on the cheap.

But Worden barely had a chance to settle in when RLEP was whisked away to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., which is leading development of a robotic lander that NASA hopes to launch in 2011 as a precursor to astronaut landings. Ames’ consolation prize was a lunar projects office for developing small spacecraft to support the exploration effort.

In an internal blog for Ames employees, Worden complained that Marshall Director David King took his “lunch money” with an assist from Alabama’s powerful congressional delegation. Worden later recanted, saying he spouted off before he “knew all the facts.” King took the episode in good humor, telling Worden during a subsequent Strategic Management Council meeting that he owed him lunch.

Worden says it remains his goal to make Ames synonymous with fast-paced and affordable missions, and has been reaching out to like-minded companies to make that happen. But he continues to face challenges, not the least of which is securing funding in a ridiculously tight budget environment.

He spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writers Brian Berger and Jeremy Singer.


 

How is working for NASA after a career spent largely in the national security space arena?

It has been really refreshing working with people who make decisions on solid technical ground. I have to say bluntly that the national security side of the space business has lost some of that technical excellence, particularly at the senior levers of leadership and in recruiting the best and brightest at the lower levels. Since I’ve been at Ames, my in-box is stuffed full of really super technical people at all levels, including former military program managers with strong track records, wanting to come work with us.

What’s your vision for Ames?

We would like to be a template for working with the private sector. Another area where Ames can assist NASA as a whole is to really get into small, affordable missions. Small missions potentially have an important role to play in everything we do in space. For example, they help prove out complicated concepts so when you get into a bigger program the technical issues are less taxing.

What’s the latest on Google’s plans to build a research campus at Ames?

We are still in the negotiation phase. We have preliminary agreements that would involve hosting some of their facilities at Ames. That’s pretty far along, but not finalized. There also is potential for joint research projects, not necessarily IT related. And the really big thing, if we can find the right program, is to potentially do some type of joint space missions. We are also starting discussions with other companies. I’m not at liberty to say who yet, but there are probably four or five major discussions ongoing.

What kind of space mission would Ames potentially pursue with Google?

I don’t want to speak for them. Indeed if I spoke for them, I probably wouldn’t get very far. But I will just note they are in the information business: organizing information; making it readily available to users and attracting people to their Web site . I will also note that NASA Web sites get billions of hits. If we can find some interesting joint efforts, I think we’ve got a good shot at working with them.

Mars imagery already is available at Google Mars. Is Google Moon under discussion?

I cannot comment on specifics.

Does Ames have more to offer the private sector than prized Silicon Valley real estate?

Absolutely. I’ve got 2,500 of the cleverest people doing the neatest missions. The merger of space and information is a huge growth area for the private sector and a number of those folks think the same way. I see Ames as a space portal that is strategically located in a dynamic environment of venture capital, information systems, biotechnology and space. There’s a huge number of potential partners around Ames.

How about partnerships with the U.S. Defense Department?

We’re very interested in partnerships with anybody and DoD is certainly doing a lot of neat stuff. In fact, we just signed a deal with AirLaunch, which is developing a small launcher under a DoD-sponsored program. There’s potential for AirLaunch to conduct some flight operations from the Ames airfield. Another potential area of collaboration we are pursuing avidly under the guidance of NASA’s associate administrator for aeronautics, Lisa Porter, is hypersonics. DoD, and particularly the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is doing a lot of really neat programs in those areas and Ames is playing a significant role in some of the research. There have already been discussions about some of our wind tunnels supporting hypersonics development.

We’ve also had some discussions with the Air Force Research Laboratory about collaborating on the development of small plug-and-play satellites that could potentially be assembled in a week from qualified components. We really want to play a role in that Air Force effort, and we are working closely with other NASA centers, particularly Goddard Space Flight Center, on a potential collaboration.

Do you see synergy between the U.S. Air Force’s responsive space efforts and what Ames wants to do in the small-satellite arena?

Right now we are looking very closely at small, fast-paced missions to the Moon. The technology the Air Force Research Laboratory has developed has potentially huge interest to us. And, conversely, a lot of ideas NASA has developed could be of interest to them. Just as there are national security purposes for being able to build a satellite in a week , there are some good reasons why you would want to be able to do that for space exploration, especially as we move into the human expedition phase. We’re going to find things out about the Moon, Mars and other objects in our solar system that we are going to want to follow up with space missions that can happen within a month, not five years.

How is Ames’ only major flight project, the Kepler space telescope, doing?

Kepler, like almost all other space missions in the second half of the first decade of the 21st century, has budget and schedule challenges. But that’s a larger issue. I don’t think Kepler, from what I’ve seen, is particularly worse or better than anything else.

Do you expect flight operations of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) to move from Ames to Dryden Flight Research Center?

The operations are very much an open issue right now. The arrangement is that SOFIA will continue with Dryden assuming the lead role in finishing the aircraft. For the time being, Ames will continue to lead the science preparation. As Mike Griffin has said, future roles may be competed. Whether SOFIA is operated from Ames or someplace else, we expect to make the point that Ames can play a key role. After all, the science instruments for the mission are being built here.

Are SOFIA flight operations critical to Ames keeping its airstrip open?

Naturally, it’s a consideration, but I don’t think it’s critical. In my estimation whether or not NASA retains the Ames airstrip depends on a variety of factors, including its relevance to the NASA mission and what it costs. The charge I’ve been given with not only the airfield, but other facilities here as well, is to work with the private sector and find work that furthers the Vision for Space Exploration and helps defray some of our costs.

It’s often said that congressional earmarks originate at the NASA field centers. Will you play that game to protect Ames?

No. Earmarks are counterproductive for the agency and the Vision for Space Exploration. But I don’t think center management originates earmarks. They are originated by contractors, universities and other people associated with a given center. However, center management can help with earmarks by discouraging them. When you have a meeting with a contractor and they tell you they can go get congressman X to put in an earmark, you can tell them ‘no,’ or you can wink or nod and they go do it. It’s been made very clear that that’s not acceptable in Mike Griffin’s NASA.