Space Science Advisory Committee (SScAC) Minutes 1-3 Nov 2000

Status Report From: NASA Advisory Council
Posted: Friday, November 3, 2000


Jet Propulsion Laboratory
November 1-3, 2000

Letter to Associate Administrator Dr. Edward Weiler from Dr. Steven Squyres, Chair of SScAC

Dear Ed:

The Space Science Advisory Committee (SScAC) met at JPL on November 1-3, 2000. Our findings and recommendations from this meeting are summarized below:

Mars Exploration Program Reformulation.  Scott Hubbard, Firouz Naderi, and Dan McCleese briefed us on the reformulation of the Mars Exploration Program. We were very impressed with the new Mars management team, as well as with the reformulated management structure, which exhibits clear lines of responsibility for program planning and implementation.

Scott described for us the anticipated structure of the Mars program for the next several launch opportunities. It was clear that Code S has made significant progress toward establishing an achievable, science-driven, technology-enabled plan for Mars exploration. The plan is well balanced, including the desired elements of orbital reconnaissance, in situ exploration, and sample return. The near-term program (through '05) is also characterized by a level of science return and technology demonstration that is consistent with the current level of funding. Because of the rapid pace of progress required to carry out this program, the we recommend that a Science Definition Team be formed immediately for the 2005 Mars  Reconnaissance Orbiter, and in the relatively near future for the Mars '07 opportunity.

An aspect of the plan that we endorse with particular enthusiasm is the proposed “Mars Discovery” line of missions. These missions would be PI-led and openly competed. They would involve the broad community in the process of Mars exploration, would treat important problems with potentially broader focus than the mainline Program, and would enable the Program to adapt on a relatively short time frame to new discoveries.

We had a long discussion about the role and timing of sample return in the Mars program. Because of the challenge and cost of sample return, we urge that Mars program managers articulate clearly the unique role that returned samples would play in addressing key scientific questions at Mars. We recognize the scientific importance of sample return, and we recommend that the first Mars sample return occur as soon as possible, consistent with a prudent level of risk. We further recommend that the schedule for sample return be revisited as appropriate in the context of increased knowledge of the geological context of landing sites, potential future funding increases, and new technological developments. We endorse the approach of involving the scientific, technological and human exploration communities in future program planning.

It was also clear from what we heard that the Mars Program offers an unparalleled opportunity to engage the public and students in the adventure of exploring another planet. It is important that OSS take advantage of this opportunity to create a world-class Education and Public Outreach (EPO) effort as an integral and essential part of the program. We therefore encourage the Mars program leadership to involve leading figures from the EPO community outside and inside of NASA, and to form a broad spectrum of alliances with the EPO community.

Outer Planets Program Reformulation.  We heard from Jay Bergstralh about the status of the Outer Planets Program. It is our conclusion that the Outer Planets Program is in a state of crisis. However, we also note with approval that Code S recognizes the magnitude of the crisis, and is beginning to formulate a plan to respond to it.  We reaffirm the importance of the two highest priority scientific goals for the outer solar system defined in the strategic plan: to investigate a possible ocean on Europa and to explore Pluto and Kuiper Belt Objects. We urge that the essential scientific goals of these two missions not be compromised as the program is reformulated.  We endorse the recommendation made by our Solar System Exploration Subcommittee that NASA should aggressively seek ways to recover from the present crisis by reducing the costs of the Europa and Pluto/Kuiper missions, perhaps including competing one or both missions via the AO process.

Astrobiology.  We heard from our Astrobiology Task Force (ATF), chaired by Chas Beichman. At their most recent meeting, the ATF dealt with a number of issues associated with Astrobiology. They have found that exciting work continues to be carried out under the auspices of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI), and that this growing scientific discipline has been energized by the Institute's efforts. We also heard from Chas about NAI Director Barry Blumberg's recent appointment at NASA Headquarters. We agree with Dr. Blumberg that the NAI requires a full time, in-residence Director. Therefore if Dr. Blumberg's current assignment to NASA HQ will last more than a few months, a search for a new NAI Director should be organized.

In the most important part of our Astrobiology discussion, we heard a detailed report from Chas about the ATF's review of the NASA Astrobiology Research Laboratory (NARL) proposed for development at Ames Research Center. You'll recall that at our meeting in July we heard an interim report from the ATF. At that time, the ATF had met with the NARL Science Definition Team chaired by Don Lowe, but had not yet had the chance to meet with NARL advocates from Ames. While we received their interim report at that time, we directed them to hear fully and completely from the group at Ames before submitting their final recommendations to us.

We believe that the ATF's treatment of the NARL has now been quite thorough. They spent considerable time at Ames prior to our meeting discussing the NARL's goals, objectives, and organization in detail with Ames managers and scientists. They also interacted at some length with the NAI principal investigators, who brought their own very useful perspectives to the discussion.

After a careful and thorough review, the opinion of the Astrobiology Task Force and of SScAC is that there is no clear and compelling need for a centralized national Astrobiology laboratory. There is no doubt that potentially worthwhile activities could be conducted at such a laboratory. Work on topics like detection of life and prebiotic materials, environmental simulation, and computational biology are good examples.  However, we feel that no compelling case has been made that a central facility is required to further these activities. Many SScAC members felt that such work could better be conducted at a number of smaller distributed facilities. We found it particularly noteworthy that it was also the overwhelming view of the NAI PIs that a centralized laboratory facility is not required.

While we recommend that the proposed NARL not be established, the dialog that this proposal has prompted has been healthy and productive. In particular, it has shown that there are exciting new areas of astrobiological science that do require significant distributed laboratory facilities. Astrobiology is a vibrant and growing field, and the absence of such facilities points to an exciting future opportunity that Astrobiology might grow into if funding increases allow.

Finally, we reiterate a point we made at our last meeting.  Should the case for a national astrobiology laboratory ever become compelling at some point in the future, such a facility must be openly competed and selected by peer review.

Office of Biological and Physical Research.  NASA Chief Scientist Kathie Olsen joined us by telephone. She briefed us on the Agency's vision and structure for Code U, the new, fifth Enterprise, to be called the Office of Biological and Physical Research. 

Now seems an appropriate time for NASA to form an enterprise focused on biological research. There is tremendous excitement today in the life sciences, drawing its intellectual impetus from the growing ability to successfully apply our understanding of physics, chemistry and complex systems to a deeper and more unified understanding of life. We understand that the purpose of Code U is to enhance NASA's participation in Biological and Physical Sciences through an office that unifies activities in several areas.  NASA's unique access to extraordinary environments (for example, microgravity) gives it a special role to play, and its interest in the survival of humans in these environments gives it a major stake it some of the possible results of this research. 

(For purposes of clarity, we note that what was called “fundamental physics” in Kathie's briefing would conventionally be referred to as “laboratory physics” by the Space Science community.)

We were pleased to learn that increasing coordination is planned between the science-based activities of Code U and Code S.   Astrobiology has deeper and more extensive intellectual connections with the work carried out within Code S than with any other part of NASA.  In order to strengthen the synergy between astrobiology and space sciences, especially the flight projects carried out by Code S, we agree firmly with the expressed opinion of the Chief Scientist that the Astrobiology Initiative belongs within Code S.

Research Program.  As usual, we heard a report from Guenter Riegler about the Code S research program. Guenter reported to us on several aspects of the program, including final preparations for the first-ever comparative assessment of the Code S R&A programs. We heard that all nine of the new science Clusters are now organizing working groups that will help produce Cluster Reports. These reports are to be submitted in April of 2001, for panel review in June. We recognize that there is some apprehension in the community about this new process, but we feel that it is important to go forward with it in order to ensure the continued vitality of the R&A Program. As the membership of the review panel for these reports is constituted over the next few months, we emphasize the importance of selecting individuals with a proper balance of expertise, as discussed by our subcommittees. Overall, we commend Guenter for his progress towards carrying out these reviews. Because of some minor schedule concerns in some themes, we encourage him to work with SScAC subcommittee chairs to achieve a review schedule that is satisfactory for all.

We were also very pleased to hear that for the first time in many years there is a significant projected increase relative to inflation in R&A funding, in addition to the already significant projected increase in DA. We emphasize that in order for these projected increases to be effective, it is essential that R&A and DA funds not be used to solve problems in the flight programs, as has happened in the past in some themes. We also reiterate a key point that we have made previously. In order for all themes to benefit from the substantial projected growth in peer-reviewed science funding, some themes must work harder to expand the scope and accessibility of their Data Analysis programs. This need seems particularly acute for Solar System Exploration.

Guenter raised the issue of R&A and DA award sizes, and presented several possible strategies for raising the average award size, which has not kept pace with inflation. Although we shared his concern about this issue, we feel that the guiding principle governing decisions on award size should be the goal of achieving the most science per dollar within a given discipline.  Toward this end, we encourage Guenter to remind review panels and the community that in some instances science can be maximized by including a small number of grants that are significantly larger than average.

Guenter also asked us to consider whether or not a process should be put in place to assess whether Code S has achieved the appropriate balance among R&A, DA, and flight projects. An overemphasis on flight projects, to the detriment of combined R&A plus DA, has been a concern of the science community in the past. However, the projected future trends in R&A plus DA growth are very positive, and directly address community concerns. Given this projected growth, we do not see a need for a review process at this time. Projected growth must become real growth, however, so we will revisit this question again a year from now.

GPRA 2000 Performance Report.  As part of our annual responsibilities under the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), we reviewed Code S's F.Y. 2000 Performance Report. Performance overall has been excellent, with “green” scores awarded to the vast majority of the targets. A detailed report of our evaluation is in preparation, and will be presented to the NASA Advisory Council at its next meeting.

Education and Public Outreach.  Finally, we heard an invigorating presentation on Code S's Education and Public Outreach programs from Jeff Rosendhal, Isabel Hawkins, and others. These programs are among Code S's great successes of the past several years, and we continue to be impressed with their breadth and impact.

That summarizes the results of our meeting. Please don't hesitate to contact me if you would like any clarification or further detail on any of the points that we've raised above.

Best wishes,
Steve Squyres
Chair, SScAC

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