New Year's Message From Alan Stern Associate Administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate


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As you likely already know, I took this position at NASA and formed a new executive team at NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD) in the early part of 2007. Since then, this new team and the Directorate's staff have been working to effect positive changes in both the content of SMD's programs and the style and conduct of SMD's affairs with the science community.

Make no mistake, we understand that there is far more work in front of us than behind us to turn SMD around, but we have already made some very real progress. So as this New Year 2008 dawns, I want to provide you with some examples of what we accomplished across our Earth and space science programs since April of 2007 when our new team took the reigns at SMD. Then I will say some things about the challenges that face us this year.

But let's begin with some specific positive developments, which included:

  • The initiation of 3 significant new flight projects (Heliophysics' BARREL, Astrophysics' NuStar, and Planetary's GRAIL).
  • Approval following a senior review in the Earth sciences program for extensions of all 11 operating Earth science missions in space.
  • Re-manifesting of the OMPS-Limb sensor on NPP.
  • Re-vectoring of the Explorer call for proposals now on the street to fly three full missions, instead of just one as formerly planned.
  • Conducting a breakthrough study that is finally moving the long-desired Solar Probe mission within realistic grasp.
  • Approval of two extended missions in the planetary program to accomplish new flybys of comets (EPOXI and Stardust-NExT).
  • Selection of two major US instruments to fly aboard the ESA ExoMars rover in 2013, the extension of the MER rovers for two additional years, the addition of sample caching to MSL, and a new push to accomplish Mars Sample Return.
  • Targeted increases in R&A programs, including Astrobiology and suborbital research.
  • Speedier proposal status notifications, a move from 3- to -4 year-long grants, and R&A grant process improvements that resolved hundreds of individual grant funding problems.
  • A wide-scale initiative to broaden and better coordinate international collaboration in flight programs.

In addition, in 2007 SMD launched 4 new orbital and planetary science missions (THEMIS, AIM, Phoenix, and Dawn), almost 20 suborbital science missions, two major airborne Earth science campaigns plus some rapid-response airborne remote sensing aid to the California wildfire emergencies, and the first test flights of the SOFIA 747 airborne infrared observatory - all without any significant mishap or malfunction.

Further still, no fewer than six new SMD orbital missions reached their final stages of development in 2007, and are expected to fly in 2008: (OSTM, GLAST, HST-SM4, OCO, IBEX, and SDO. We also have the continued development of 6 new NASA Earth science missions and a new Landsat mission moving toward launch. And we look forward in 2008 to two MESSENGER flybys of Mercury (in January and October), the Phoenix Mars landing (in May), and the NASA Exploration directorate's launch of the LRO and LCROSS lunar missions (October).

I think this recapitulation of recent accomplishments and activities shows something important, and there is no reason for it to be a secret: SMD is renewing itself.

Yet even with so much to celebrate, we have some very significant challenges immediately ahead of us. Some of the most notable challenges that we face in 2008 are:

  • Making flight project cost overruns rare rather than routine;
  • Repairing deep deficiencies in MO&DA and R&A budgets;
  • Initiating the Earth science decadal survey flight program;
  • Culminating key agreements with international partners; and
  • Obtaining reliable but less expensive launch options.

We are tackling each of these issues - and others - head on. We are also working to see new flight projects initiated in 2008, and to further leverage our airborne and suborbital programs: We intend to manage the SMD program to get more science from the budget we have, and to better enable you to turn heads with the discoveries that result from our programs. For after all, that is centrally why we have an Earth and space science program at NASA - to make discoveries that illuminate the workings of our home planet, its moon, its Sun, the kindred worlds and the heliospheric environment of our solar system, and the larger universe beyond.

Along with other senior leaders in SMD, I will be attending the AAS, LPSC, and AGU conferences in the coming months, as well as various NAC and SSB meetings, to say more about the content of our future program and the steep challenges we face.

In 2008, we will be looking to you in the Earth and space science research communities for advice, counsel, feedback, and most importantly, new results.

In the meantime, best wishes for this fresh New Year.

-Alan Stern

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