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Nation's Astronomers Continue Dialog with NASA Administrator Mike Griffin

Press Release From: American Astronomical Society
Posted: Tuesday, September 26, 2006

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The American Astronomical Society (AAS), the largest professional organization for research astronomers in the United States has received answers from NASA Administrator Mike Griffin to a series of important questions sent to him by email last week.

As a follow-on to a question/answer session at the January 2006 meeting of the Society, the six questions were crafted by the AAS Committee for Astronomy and Public Policy (CAPP), approved by the Executive Committee of the Society and submitted by email to Dr. Griffin by AAS President J. Craig Wheeler from the University of Texas and CAPP Chair, Jack Burns from the University of Colorado.

President Wheeler said, "The Columbia disaster put the state of NASA, its science programs, and the human space flight program under a bright focus. As a result, NASA has been tasked to do too much with too few resources. Astronomers have been traumatized as plans on which they have built their careers and planned the careers of their students have been constricted or cancelled. Astronomers do not do these things because they will lead to immense riches. They do them because their hearts and souls are captured by the wonder at the Universe they are privileged to explore. That is why they leap to the defense of projects, long in the planning, and consuming of their scientific passions, that are threatened with cut-backs and cancellation. This dialog with Administrator Griffin is one means by which NASA and the astronomy community can work together to accomplish the most exciting, productive science with the most efficient use of taxpayers dollars."

Dr. Jack Burns, chair of the AAS Committee for Astronomy and Public Policy said, "We in the AAS appreciate the difficult challenges that Dr. Griffin faces as NASA Administrator at this time -- returning the Shuttle to successful flight operations, finishing the International Space Station, planning the infrastructure for a return to the Moon and later to Mars, and, very importantly, maintaining a vigorous program of scientific exploration of the cosmos. Administrator Griffin has clearly expressed his on-going commitment to solicit the community's advice through the NASA Advisory Committee, the Space Studies Board of the National Academy of Science, and Decadal Survey process. We welcome this additional direct dialog via his candid answers to these AAS questions in an effort to achieve both the astronomy community's goals and NASA's mission to advance and communicate scientific knowledge."

Kevin Marvel said, "Having an open communication channel with Administrator Griffin is important now more than ever given the pressures NASA faces. I think it is great he took the time to attend our meeting in January and even better that he finds the time to respond to our questions. I hope this dialog can continue."

The questions and Administrator Griffin's responses are included in their entirety below.

QUESTIONS FOR ADMINISTRATOR GRIFFIN FROM THE AAS

1. How do you integrate strategic advice from the NRC, CAA, and AAAC and tactical advice from the NAC science subcommittees into NASA planning? What kind of input from the science community would be most useful to you and your senior staff, particularly those in SMD who manage the science programs?

I must first note that "strategic" advice is not absent from the NAC. To classify their input as "tactical" is to misinterpret their role as NASA's primary advisor. Being in essence an "internal" advisor to NASA, the NAC is most useful in helping NASA to consider and to shape strategic priorities for future years, while also rendering tactical advice in the handling of current programs, yet all in a manner which respects Presidential policy and Congressional authorization and appropriations legislation. This is advice which we at NASA can consider and, if it seems sound, implement without conflict. Recommendations from other committees do not necessarily share this property.

The NRC/NAS/SSB (Space Studies Board) is a primary strategic advisor to Congress on the nation's space science priorities and, as such, we at NASA take the recommendations of that committee very seriously, and should. I have been very explicit in saying that it is my intention that science priorities at NASA should follow the decadal plans of the various SSB subcommittees wherever possible. These decadal plans are the primary touchstone for NASA, and represent some of the most useful strategic advice we can get from the NRC. When programs overrun or budget appropriations are reduced, then NASA management must make cuts somewhere. While practical issues of programmatic implementation will always be present, science community priorities should inform these cuts. The stated priorities of the NRC are most useful in this regard. Since these priorities are not required to be consistent with those of the President or Congress, NRC opinions provide the best view we at NASA have as to the unfettered priorities of the scientific community with regard to space science programs. We cannot always implement those priorities, but it is very important to know them.

Also, we at NASA use the Academy on a regular basis for specific studies which are not of particular interest to Congress. We do this when we need advice or perspective on a specific topic where our internal "bench strength," or that within our NAC Science subcommittees, is not sufficient. I would anticipate that this relationship would continue as it has, more or less indefinitely.

The AAAC advises the NSF, DoE, and NASA. My interactions with Garth Illingworth, who presently chairs this committee, have been quite favorable; Garth is a true professional who cares about the program. But it is not at all clear to me how AAAC advice to different agencies with different charters and having disparate OMB examiners and Congressional oversight committees can be utilized effectively. A recommendation acceptable to one agency's internal managers and external overseers might well -- and often does -- fall afoul of the preferences of another. I do not know how to resolve this issue. It seems to me that AAAC recommendations can only be of such a general nature that they offend no one, if they are to be implementable at all.

2. You indicated recently that you would like to see science increase at the same rate as the overall agency budget (2.4% in the current FY07 budget request). Could you elaborate on when and how this might be achieved?

Science grows 1% through FY11, and then would grow according to NASA's topline growth (currently at inflation, approximately 2.4% per year) starting in FY12. This would show in the President's Budget Request for FY08, which is released in February, 2007.

3. Historically, NASA science missions have cost more and taken longer than originally envisioned, which complicates forward planning and leads to recurrent budget problems. Based upon your experience in NASA and as a leader of industry, can you envision a process for obtaining more accurate assessments of cost, schedule, and technical risk?

No. I think that the uncertainties in program planning, budgeting, and control that we experience in state-of-the-art, first-of-a-kind missions will always be with us. We have decades of experience across hundreds of programs to suggest that this is so. The best recommendation I have for coping with such problems is to allocate appropriate reserves on the "front end" of any program, and then leave that reserve in place! Per my direction, all new NASA programs are being budgeted at the 70% confidence level, absent special considerations. I have made a specific point of desiring realistic, rather than optimistic, cost estimates for new programs, and have established a strong Program Analysis & Evaluation Office, reporting to me, with independent cost estimation expertise. All of these things are departures from past practice, and should help alleviate the collateral damage which occurs to a portfolio of programs when one of them overruns badly. It must, however, be understood that one result of these collective changes is that fewer programs will receive funding approval. I believe that NASA, the taxpayers, and the science community will be better served by ensuring that priority science missions benefit from healthy funding, than by spreading the wealth among a larger number of missions, none of which receives adequate funding.

4. Both the Decadal survey and a recent NRC Assessment from the Space Studies Board have emphasized the importance of balance of projects of different scale in an optimized science program. What are your views on the importance of balance and how it might be achieved?

I believe this balance is crucial; I completely support the NRC/SSB position on this point. Nothing could have replaced the Great Observatories; on the other hand, none of them produced the landmark results on the distribution of energy in the early universe which were revealed to us by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, a rather modest mission. We need to determine which goals we are trying to reach and what results we are seeking, and then design the systems necessary to attain them, without initial biases as to whether we need, or don't need, missions of a certain "class."

5. There are indications that NASA is facing a workforce crisis that may threaten its ability to carry out its mission. Given that many AAS members are faculty at colleges and universities or otherwise involved in education, what do you think that the AAS can do to help NASA address this looming problem?

We do not have a looming problem or a workforce crisis. 25% of the NASA workforce will be eligible to retire within the next five years, though of course not all will do so. I regard this as an opportunity to bring in the next generation of scientists and engineers, who will take us to the Moon and Mars. There are larger issues, which I think have been well publicized, concerning the uncomfortably small proportion of U.S. students who are choosing to enroll in the mathematical, scientific, or engineering disciplines. This is a concern which I believe to be rooted in the nation's culture and in the priorities which have been set for government spending by many Administrations and Congresses in recent decades. If the AAS can play a constructive role in a discussion of these priorities as they relate to the future of science and technology in our country, I welcome it.

6. As space science missions become more ambitious and as other nations have developed more capabilities in space, international partnerships have become increasingly common, and with them they have brought new challenges. What do you think can be done to increase the effectiveness of such partnerships in the future?

Actually, I think they are quite effective as they stand today. It has actually become less common for the U.S. to execute a space science mission entirely by itself, rather than to employ some form of international partnership. The efficiency of international cooperation on such missions could be improved through greater flexibility in the implementation of U.S. ITAR and export control regulations.

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