WASHINGTON — NASA science chief Alan Stern, is vowing to wring more science out of the U.S. space agency’s tight budget by getting better upfront cost estimates, holding managers more accountable, canceling projects that are not performing, ending missions that have outlived their usefulness, and collaborating more with other space agencies.
“We just have to change our attitude around here. The budgets are what they are and we have to get more out of the budget that we have,” Stern said May 24 in his first formal meeting with reporters since taking the helm of NASA’s $5.2 billion science portfolio in early April.
The U.S. space agency has been harshly criticized by many scientists since last year when the agency unveiled a five-year budget plan that reneged on an earlier promise to keep the science budget growing at a healthy clip through the end of the decade and beyond. But greater-than-expected human space
flight costs coupled with less-than-expected budget increases prompted NASA to cut several billion dollars from the long-range science plan, which means the agency’s astronomers, planetary scientists, and climatologists likely will have to make due with largely flat budgets until the space shuttle is retired and its replacement is well on its way to the launch pad.
Stern, a seasoned principal investigator whose budget-class New Horizons probe is currently en route to a 2015 rendezvous with Pluto, said $5 billion is a big pot of money if used well. “It’s my firm belief we can use that more effectively,” he said.
In addition to making sure NASA’s big projects are run well, Stern indicated a willingness to eliminate red tape and other distractions that keep agency-funded scientists from making discoveries. “We have scientists spending much of their time doing budgets, writing reports, doing bureaucratic things and serving on review panels,” he said.
Stern also reiterated an earlier pledge to fire principal investigators (PIs)- the scientists NASA entrusts to run competitively selected missions – if their projects get out of hand.
Going after PIs who cannot perform also sends a strong message of accountability to the aerospace firms backing these scientist-led missions from proposal through design and development, Stern said.
“No aerospace firm, no industrial partner wants to be the firm that got their PI fired, because in the next round of competitions, the PI community doesn’t want to go to the firm that got their PI fired,” Stern said. “It’s a strong feedback loop in the management philosophy that I think will yield dividends.”
Stern also wants to get better mission cost estimates from the outset, starting with the so-called decadal surveys the National Academy of Sciences periodically produces to help set the agency’s mission priorities.
NASA just received the first-ever decadal survey for Earth science, a 10-year-plan that NASA Administrator Mike Griffin criticized for wildly underestimating the costs of some of the 15 missions it wants NASA to undertake in the decade ahead.
The next decadal survey coming NASA’s way is a new 10-year plan for astrophysics. The National Academy is due to kick off that effort in January and deliver a finished product in 2010. Stern said NASA is willing to spend the “millions” its expected to cost to get decent independent cost estimates for this and the other decadal surveys that will get under way in the years ahead.
In a departure from past practice, the National Academy decadal survey panels
also will be asked to identify a not-to-exceed price for proposed missions. Stern said these “trip wires” would allow future NASA managers to know when it is time to cut its losses on a particular mission and move on to the next one on the list.
Astronomers have since acknowledged that the 2000 decadal survey vastly underestimated the cost of the James Webb Space Telescope and other projects, leaving NASA with a lengthy to-do list as the end of the decade approaches.
Stern questioned whether astronomers would have ranked James Webb their top priority if they knew at the time that it would cost $4.5 billion instead of the $1 billion they assumed at the time. “The answer might have been very different,” he said.
History aside, Stern said James Webb today is performing well even if it was initially “under priced.”
“Now, the last 18 months, [James Webb] has done spectacularly well and they seem to be on their program plan as they approach their [March 2008 preliminary design review],” he said. “We don’t have any problems with it. We’ve adjusted the budget to make it fit and it’s going to be the crown jewel of astrophysics worldwide when it’s launched in 2013.”
In addition to cost growth on James Webb, NASA has within the past year decided to conduct one last Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission and finish and fly the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, a telescope-equipped jetliner now expected to cost many times the $250 million estimate included in a 1990 decadal survey. As a result, Stern said, NASA’s astrophysics program cannot afford to start new missions until it finishes “what it’s got on its plate.”
One early casualty of NASA’s constrained astrophysics budget is the Space Interferometry Mission (SIM), a multi
billion-dollar observatory that was scaled back last year to a $10 million technology development effort. SIM advocates are worried the project could soon be scrapped altogether, a possibility Stern did not exactly rule out. “It’s certainly not the case that we have made any final decisions on that,” he said.
But Stern did draw a clear line at sacrificing healthy missions already in development as he sets out to get more from NASA’s science budget.
“I don’t intend to kill off missions in development,” he said. “That doesn’t mean a mission can’t get into sufficient trouble that we find another way to do it. But there is no plan to go about with a machete.”
One mission that Stern singled out as troubled – the over budget and behind schedule Kepler planet-hunting telescope – apparently is in no real danger of cancellation. Stern said while there is no guarantee the spacecraft would be launched before the end of 2008 as currently planned, Kepler is making sufficient progress that cancellation is considered “a very, very remote possibility.”
“I’m not concerned about whether we will get it together,” he said. “It’s really an issue of better managing the program.”
Kepler’s price tag grew by 21 percent between May 2005 and July 2006 when NASA approved the new $418 million development cost and a November 2008 launch date. NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown said Kepler has fallen further behind schedule and incurred additional cost growth since last summer, prompting NASA to look for ways to cut costs on the project.
Responding to criticism that NASA’s science portfolio is tilted too heavily toward big-ticket projects, Stern has announced that NASA’s next Explorer-class mission competition will select and fund three so-called Small Explorer missions instead of one Medium Explorer. Stern also has taken steps to reinvigorate NASA’s sounding rocket program and has made a goodwill gesture toward astrobiology, adding $3 million to a program that in the past year has seen its $60 million budget cut nearly in half.