The new director of NASA’s Ames Research Center said he is determined to make the San Francisco Bay area field center synonymous with low-cost space missions.

“We want to be the go-to guys for innovative, fast-paced and affordable missions,” said Simon “Pete” Worden, the retired Air Force brigadier general who was tapped late last month to lead Ames.

Ames today is better known for its Cold War-era wind tunnels and high-performance computing prowess than leading space missions. In fact, it has been nearly a decade since an Ames-led mission — the $63 million Lunar Prospector orbiter — has flown in space.

But Worden told Space News in a May 24 interview that Ames still has what it takes to produce space missions that deliver a lot of bang for the buck, and he plans to pull together the center’s resident capabilities into a new organization designed to do just that.

Where Ames is lacking the necessary expertise, Worden said, the center will turn to the private sector and international community. “I think we’ve got a lot of the talent already here,” he said. “In the areas where we don’t, that’s what partnerships are all about.”

Worden said he wants to build on the Lunar Prospector tradition and make sure that Ames’ Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), a recently selected $73 million mission slated to launch with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2008, is just the first of many low-cost, high-return missions to come out of the center.

In addition to LCROSS, Ames is now closely involved in the development of the Kepler planet-hunting telescope, a $500 million mission proposed by Ames but largely managed by NASA’s Pasadena, Calif.-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

More typical of the kind of projects Worden has in mind for Ames is GeneSat-1, a 10-kilogram nanosatellite the center is working on to investigate whether the dreaded E. coli bacteria mutates in space.

Worden is a big believer in small satellites, having co-led the innovative 1994 Clementine Moon probe mission, one of the first missions to incorporate the so-called Faster, Better, Cheaper philosophy of spacecraft design and mission management that guided NASA for most of the 1990s.

Worden said low-cost, fast-paced missions could have a big role to play in lunar exploration, filling the gaps in the capabilities offered by larger missions like the $546 million Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Worden said a low-cost approach could be useful in putting some early navigation and communications capabilities — what he called “lunar utilities” — in place around the Moon. Further out, Worden said he could see applying the low-cost, fast-paced approach to the exploration of Mars and missions to near-Earth o bjects, long a personal interest of Worden’s.

Under Worden, Ames is expected to compete more aggressively for NASA mission opportunities. Worden said he recognizes there are not an abundance of new mission opportunities on the immediate horizon, but insisted that will not stop Ames from pushing innovative approaches that can help the agency achieve the objectives of its space exploration agenda.

“Is there a lot of spare change lying around? No. But sometimes you can make a deal that can’t be refused,” Worden said.

Worden also said he had no qualms about pushing Ames beyond its recent customary roles. “There is no such thing that this center is only for this and this center is only for that,” he said. “[NASA Administrator] Mike Griffin has said he wants 10 healthy centers and that means anyone can lead or contribute to major missions.”

John Logsdon, the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University here, said if the goal is to turn Ames into a hotbed of low-cost, innovative missions, Worden certainly has the right credentials for the job.

“Pete Worden has been thinking about innovative approaches to space missions for a long time, and with the 1994 Clementine mission put a lot of his ideas into practice,” Logsdon said. “He has the opportunity to reinvent the Robotic Lunar Exploration Program, which Ames manages, as a test bed for a series of lower-cost missions, many with international involvement. Pete wants to infuse new energy and new ideas into his space mission staff at Ames ‑‑‑ it will be interesting to watch what happens over the next few years.”

Worden demurred when asked if he intended to shake up the Robotic Lunar Exploration Program, or RLEP for short.

“I don’t own RLEP,” he said. “RLEP is a program of the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. The program office is housed at Ames and many of the people are Ames employees. I’m the equivalent of the CEO of a major prime. I respond to opportunities.”

In Worden’s view, NASA’s lunar exploration plans, which call for landing astronauts on Earth’s nearest neighbor as soon as 2018, is an opportunity begging for innovative approaches.

“I’m clearly going to provide the NASA leadership with low-cost options to do as much of the requirements as we can, recognizing we are still going to need a few larger-scale missions,” Worden said. “We are going to offer NASA some low-cost proposals that will knock their socks off.”

Does Worden have anything particular in mind? “For a few tens of millions, I’m convinced you can do low-cost lunar landers,” he said.

By c ontrast, the cost estimates for RLEP 2, the 2011 lunar lander mission taking shape at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., are nearly $1 billion.

Changes ahead

Ames employees already have been given a heads up that big changes are planned for the field center. Prior to Worden’s arrival, the acting center director Marvin “Chris” Christensen — now Worden’s deputy — told Ames employees at an April 20 “all-hands” meeting that Ames would be turning an existing building into a “satellite center” geared towards producing small satellites costing less than $250 million, according to an account of the meeting published in Ames’ internal Astrogram newsletter.

Industry, too, has been given the heads up that change is in the wind.

Worden already has started reaching out to companies with reputations for innovation to discuss his vision for the center and interest in collaboration. He declined to say which companies he has met with, but said he is not done and plans to meet with more companies in the weeks and months ahead. “We’ve talked to a few and there are a lot more on the list, we are looking at what the possibilities are,” he said.

With Worden talking about transforming Ames into a center for low-cost, innovative approaches to space missions, a cross-state rivalry could be brewing between Ames and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the California Institute of Technology-managed field center that has dominated planetary exploration for decades.

“I am open to working with JPL and intend to do so,” Worden said. “But I may compete with them, too. There is rivalry and cooperation with everyone of the other nine centers. My interaction with my fellow center directors has been pretty exciting so far. Am I going to compete with them? You bet.”