Notes from the All-Hands with SMD Director Stern.

So, here are my usual almost stream-of-consciousness notes from today’s All-Hands meeting. There was about ten minutes of introduction and presentation, followed by an extended Q&A.

The Director introduced Alan Stern. Dr. Alan Stern is the new Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate. He has been in that new role for about six weeks. He and his staff know there are problems in SMD, but are not yet entirely sure what to do yet. They are here today, at the home of a major SMD mission, in data collection mode.

Dr. Stern made some opening remarks about SMD and his experience so far since he was asked by (NASA Administrator) Mike Griffin to take on this role. He knows there are problems, and he can’t get things fixed in six or sixteen weeks, but will get them fixed in 60 weeks. He introduced the head of Astrophysics Division, the senior advisor for Research and Analysis (R&A), and the deputy chief scientist for Space Science.

Dr. Stern said that he believes we need higher mission flight rates.   He thinks the current R&A process is broken. The first word in SMD is Science.  Rather than do 1.5 MIDEX missions two years from now, he wants to do three SMEX in January ’09.  His focus is on science, and getting a balance in science missions between the big observatories.


Ian Jordan: Regarding the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts:  This year the funding was zeroed.  Can SMD reverse that?

NASA lives on the budget it has. Demands on programs got worse because we’re on a Continuing Resolution rather than the President’s budget request. If we restored NAIC it would come out of SMD funding.  But we will look at it.

Q: Who pays for developing infrastructure for future mission? SMD shouldn’t have to develop all the infrastructure.  (Not clear to me which infrastructure the questioner was asking about.)

A: SMD’s focus is on advancing the priorities of the four decadal surveys.  We doesn’t pay for rocket engines.  SMD does pay for instrumentation, but might share some of that cost with other Divisions.  SMD does pay for some optics R&D, and for prototypes, etc that might support missions.  SMD may want to put some funding interfaces between launchers and applications, for example. They are still trying to find the balance between future missions and stuff currently in the roadmap.

Followup: Can SMD apply influence on the design of launchers, etc, that would enable or reduce the cost of doing future missions?

A: The are having those discussions, including with Exploration directorate.  The discussions go beyond “hallway conversations.”  Stern noted that Aries 5 could launch JWST-sized mission as a monolithic mirror.

Andy Fruchter: The current SMEX call for proposals specified that PIs be previous PIs/deputies. Isn’t that a bad idea, both in terms of new ideas and new people?

A: The goal of that restriction is to control cost.   The main problem in SMD budgets is increasing costs as missions overrun their budget targets.  If you extrapolate his first six weeks of budget overruns, SMD missions are over by a billion dollars a year, which is not sustainable.   We have to get control of mission costs or there is no future for science missions.   Leading a half-billion dollar mission is not an entry level position.  People need to get some experience before they lead a space mission, but they can get that experience on balloons or sounding rockets.    We also need to apply the same discipline to center-led missions.

Q: What’s the highest priority for R&A?

A: Get the money out faster.  Triage notifications, looking for financial bottlenecks, trying to fix the funding process.  May increase the length of grants, do similar things to reduce grant-writing and let people focus on science. (The Triage discussion was interesting: After the first review about 85% of proposals are clearly going forward, or are clearly not going forward.  Only 15% need more evaluation or review.  So 85% of proposers can get the notification that they either are or are not getting funded, so they can make hiring decisions, move on other proposals, etc.)

Q: What are the chances of starting up a big mission in the next few years if there’s a good science case?

A: Low.  We have a flagship mission (JWST) and the next decadal survey priority is Con-X, and some technology development. We can ask “what comes after Con-X” but from a budget standpoint, there is no room to do anything before those two missions are flying.  SMD will focus on getting SMEX and MIDEX advanced so that there is balance between large and small missions.

Q: What about SM-4?

A: We’re going to fly SM-4. SM-4 has some special risks, but Griffin is willing to accept the risk.  Issues are still being worked: ACS repair puts a lot of load on the mission.  The main focus of the mission has to be restoring the observatory (gyros, batteries, NOBL) and install two new instruments.  If that means neither ACS or STIS can be repaired, that’s preferable to having both repaired, but not getting the best possible situation for the observatory.

Any slip in shuttle launches costs astrophysics division 11 million dollars a month.  SM-4 is a big load on the shuttle system, because it delays Kibo and ties up an extra shuttle for a possible rescue mission.  SMD has been thinking about ways to coordinate with or support the Shuttle program.   For example, one reason for using a Shuttle on its last flight is that it avoids having to do the processing to put the space station airlock back in after the flight.   But if the cost of doing that airlock changeout is $20 million and it gets SM-4 a launch two months earlier, why not pay for it with SMD money?  There were some other examples as well.  Stern is very concerned about delays that might cause problems with the observatory:  The longer we wait, the more chance there is of a battery or gyro or other observatory problem.

Massimo Roberto: Is SMD thinking about conserving their budget  by collaboration with international partners?

A: We’ll talk to any country or space agency that doesn’t shoot down satellites. We’ll try a lot of ideas. Rather than duplicate missions, share capabilities and share science teams.  If we can do an outer-solar-system mission the Europeans don’t have the capability to execute, could we let the Europeans lead on a mission they can execute, and share science teams?

Q: ITAR is a burden. Is there any hope?

A: ITAR is a problem. We can’t change it, we need to think around it. We might do things like coordinate mission queues.  Again, we might share science teams, rather than share boxes that cause import issues.

Q (Matt): What can we do to help?

A: You do a lot of things well. We like your GO program. (TAC, grants, etc). Get SM-4 done. Get JWST flying and doing good science. Encourage people to collaborate rather than compete for resources. MAST, and the work on VO.

Focus on continued good work, and continued science leadership.

If you attended, please do comment or drop me a line if I missed or misunderstood something.


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