Planetary Exploration Newsletter: NASA Science Mission Directorate Update - Alan Stern, Associate Administrator/SMD


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August 21, 2007

PEN Website: http://planetarynews.org
Editor: Mark V. Sykes
Co-Editors: Matt Balme, Nic Richmond
Email: pen_editor at psi.edu

First, thanks to Mark Sykes for inviting me to write PEN subscribers about recent events since I assumed the reigns of leadership at SMD. But before I do that, I'll first say that when I arrived at SMD in April, I came with a set of specific goals that apply across all four of SMD's science themes - astrophysics, planetary, heliophysics, and Earth science. Those goals include:

  • Curtailing the standard practice of mission development cost increases, so the future mission queue is better protected.
  • Increasing science flight rates to more quickly advance the pace of discoveries.
  • Addressing R&A process and budget issues to make researchers more effective and to more quickly advance the pace of discoveries.
  • Expanding collaborations on foreign missions to more quickly advance the pace of discoveries.
  • Expanding suborbital flight opportunities in order to help train PIs, to provide opportunities to raise TRL levels on instruments, and to do unique science where possible.
  • Reinvigorating lunar science in support of the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE).

I also want to let you know (if you don't already) that virtually the entire SMD front office team has been replaced since I came aboard. On arriving I also established an Office of the Chief Scientist to provide independent technical advice that essentially peer-reviews decisions made in SMD. And I established a Senior Advisor for R&A (SARA) position in the front office effective my first day; never before has the front office had a position solely devoted to addressing R&A issues. Nobel-winning cosmologist John Mather from NASA Goddard is our new chief scientist. Former NASA Ames division director Yvonne Pendleton was appointed to the SARA position. Other new people whose names you'll likely recognize in the new SMD front office include APL's Andy Cheng as the deputy chief scientist (for space science); JPL's Randy Friedl as the deputy chief scientist (for Earth science); and SwRI's Dan Durda who is serving as a special advisor for NEOs and human spaceflight.

Two common attributes these people all have, as do the other faces in SMD's new front office roster are very high energy levels and direct recent experience in the science community. Like myself, most of the new folks in SMD leadership have come to HQ this year from "the receiving end of the bureaucracy," and therefore understand the frustrations so many in the community have felt. That, combined with the energetic and proactive leadership that Jim Green was already providing since last fall as the new leader of SMD's Planetary Science Division, and Colleen Hartmann's incredible assistance as Deputy AA, have made it easy to make advances on numerous issues that had previously been in logjam or unable to even make it to the radar screen.

Much of our time in the few months our new SMD team been in business has been focused on the FY09 budget to be released early next year. Since FY07 was half over when we came, and FY08 was already formulated and submitted to Congress by my predecessor, FY09 is the first budget that the new team can significantly impact. Since the FY09 budget is still in formulation, information about it is embargoed, but I hope you will see a variety of strong, positive advances when it is released early in February.

Finally, I'll close this note by giving examples which are of particular relevance to planetary scientists of some accomplishments that we've already made. These are generally small advances, but I hope they signal positive change in SMD's direction. They include:

  • Augmenting FY07 astrobiology efforts by $3M.
  • Funding both of the Discovery Missions of Opportunity (MoOs) under competition.
  • Providing a first-ever centralized mailbox to provide complaints and other feedback about R&A programs (email sara@nasa.gov).
  • Authorizing a widespread implementation of 4-year grants.
  • Taking under study new postdoc on-ramp programs for young investigators.
  • Simplifying grant reporting and speeding up review notifications.
  • Initiating an effort to simplify mission AOs.
  • Authorizing proposal debrief reports to be distributed to proposal teams in writing, rather than making proposers take notes from a debrief read to them.
  • Initiating an annual MoO AO beginning in 2008, to foster more international mission opportunities for US scientists.
  • Re-opening SMD monthlies to outside stakeholder organizations, including AAS, AGU, and DPS.
  • Working to bring an Outer Planets Flagship mission to launch.
  • Accelerating the long-awaited and highly-endorsed first Mars sample return, and adding sample caching capability to the MSL-09 rover.
  • Funding two further 6 month MER rover extensions.
  • Funding the LSSO lunar experiment line that had previously been cancelled.
  • Taking under study how JWST can observe moving targets.

I am now over the word limit Mark wanted for PEN, so I'll wrap this up here. Drop in if you are in DC, or see you at DPS if you are going.

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