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Space Science Advisory Committee (SScAC) 10-12 July 2000

Status Report From: NASA Advisory Council
Posted: Tuesday, July 11, 2000

July 11, 2000

Dr. Ed Weiler
Associate Administrator for Space Science
NASA Headquarters
Washington, DC 20546

Dear Ed:

The Space Science Advisory Committee (SScAC) met at NASA Headquarters on July 10-12, 2000. Because schedule conflicts required that this meeting be co-chaired by Andrew Christensen and Steve Squyres, this letter comes from both of us.

One of the highlights of the meeting was hearing from George Withbroe about the growth in research funding to the space science community. This includes both R&A and Data Analysis funding, all of it subject to open competition and peer review. George showed us that not only has recent growth in NASA's support for peer-reviewed science been significant, but also that future growth is projected at a rate that substantially exceeds inflation. This funding is crucial to the vitality of space science in the United States, and we vigorously applaud the Space Science Enterprise's continued and strong support.

It is noteworthy that the growth in funding is mostly in the data analysis portion of the program. Concentration of the growth in this area is appropriate given the increase in the flight rate in recent years, as well as the Agency's basic mission-driven character. With most of the growth in this area, it means of course that data analysis must be broadly defined: always tied to the scientific goals of the mission in question, but inclusive of relevant theoretical work, laboratory work, and so forth. Broad, inclusive data analysis programs have long been the hallmark the Code S program; the SEU, SEC, and Origins themes have all provided good examples. We were pleased to hear from you that you intend to strengthen and broaden DA programs across all of Code S.

We also considered a number of other issues, and our findings and recommendations concerning them are summarized below:

NASA Astrobiology Research Laboratory

Chas Beichman, chair of our new Astrobiology Task Force (ATF), delivered an interim report on the ATF's review of the proposed NASA Astrobiology Research Laboratory (NARL). Their review was based on interactions with the NARL Science Definition Team (SDT) chaired by Don Lowe; they have not yet been able to meet with NARL advocates from NASA Ames. The opinion of the task force based on their work to date is that they do not see a compelling need for a centralized national facility of the sort proposed. In considering this opinion, we were somewhat concerned about the abbreviated timeframe of the ATF's work to date, and about the lack of interaction with Ames. However, we were satisfied, aided by comments from Bruce Jakosky and Ken Nealson from the NARL Science Definition Team, that the conclusions reached so far have not been compromised significantly by these deficiencies. 

We note that the three science areas identified by the SDT as potentially worthwhile activities of the NARL -detection of life and prebiotic materials, environmental simulation, and computational biology -may well emerge as essential components of the Astrobiology program, even though a compelling case has not yet been made that a central facility is required to further them.  In our opinion, specific proposals for these or similar initiatives would best arise from the community itself, rather than precipitate from the availability of a building.  In particular, we look for such initiatives to arise from the NASA Astrobiology Institute or other extant astrobiology programs, as does not appear to have been the case here.

We strongly endorse two key points made by the ATF.  First, any funding for the NARL should not be provided at the expense of current Astrobiology R&A programs, which are already stressed in terms of funding, or at the expense of any other ongoing activity within Code S.  Second, should the case for a national astrobiology laboratory become compelling, this facility must be openly competed and selected by peer review.

We understand that you have asked the ATF to reconsider its recommendations at its next meeting (October 2000, at Ames), when the final SDT report will be available and the ATF can hear from NARL advocates at Ames.  In response to this development, we expect to review the situation again at our next meeting in November.

Mars Exploration Program

We heard our first report from the new Mars Program Director, Scott Hubbard, on the status of the Mars Program.  We were pleased to see that the new Mars management structure that Scott described provides for strong Headquarters leadership and clear lines of responsibility, consistent with the recommendations of the Mars Program Independent Assessment Team (MPIAT).

We recognize that the Mars Exploration Program is in a state of flux as it undergoes intensive re-evaluation of goals, objectives, resources, and schedule. We strongly endorse the methodical approach that Scott is taking, which engages the broad community. His four-part plan to get input through a Request for Ideas from industry, science workshops, input from NASA Centers, and input from international partners, is a sound way to obtain the diverse advice necessary to construct a robust program.  We also agree that as early as possible, engineering expertise must be included in the planning process. The Mars Program needs to be visionary, yet realistic.

In order to help Scott with his work, we recommend the immediate establishment of an SScAC Mars Exploration Program Task Force. This group should deal with the full spectrum of issues impacting the Mars program: science, engineering, technology, and programmatics. Along with reporting to SScAC, it also must communicate effectively with the SSES. Some common membership with the SSES may be appropriate.

Our new Mars Exploration Program Task Force is necessary, but it is not sufficient to help Scott deal with all of the scientific challenges that are faced by the Mars Program.  In order to formulate a robust new plan, Scott will also require expert scientific input in much more detail and much more frequently than the task force can provide.  Some kind of science working group, drawn from the broad Mars science community, is therefore also necessary, both in the short and long term.

Planetary Protection Advisory Committee (PPAC)

We had a brief discussion of NASA's new Planetary Protection Advisory Committee. At the last NASA Advisory Council meeting, the NAC voted to establish the PPAC, reporting to you as a subcommittee of the NAC. We reiterate that the PPAC should include scientists from the fields of Astrobiology and planetary materials, and that there should be cross membership between the SScAC and PPAC in order to facilitate effective communications. We have been invited to comment on the wording of the PPAC charter, and we will do so at the next NAC meeting. 

Explorer Program

Marcus Watkins reported to us on the status of Explorer class missions.  An issue of particular interest that emerged is the fallout from the MPIAT report. We of course want all Explorer missions to be successful, and we strongly support OSS efforts to assure the reliability of these missions.  But we also realize that such efforts will tend to increase mission costs and reduce science content and flight rate.  This pendulum must not be allowed to swing too far, or the result could be to select against innovative and important science programs. The cost of risk aversion in the Explorer Program should not be allowed to exceed the savings gained in reliability. 

We also point out that it is vital to distinguish among different kinds of risk.  As pointed out in the MPIAT report, examples of unacceptable risks include mission failures from which little or nothing can be learned, or cases when the failure can be traced to a simple mistake that should have been caught in the normal processes of management or review.  This is to be contrasted with acceptable risk based on pushing the technological envelope for the benefit of scientific progress. We urge that lessons learned from the Mars Program be applied to the selection and development of Explorer-class missions in a way that takes account of these considerations.

NASA-University Initiative

We heard from Sam Armstrong about NASA's establishment of a new initiative to strengthen the Agency's relationship with the university community.  This relationship has been essential to the success of the space sciences as well as other NASA enterprises since the early days of the space program, and we commend the Agency for focusing new attention on it.A strong focus for Gen. Armstrong's effort will be important, as will be articulating a clear set of goals and defining what the final product will be. Areas he has identified so far where the initiative could be important include compliance with the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), and the overall management of NASA's grants program. We concur with these, and we particularly encourage the efforts to clarify ITAR issues; this is an area of serious concern at many universities.  There are other issues that should be addressed as well -one good example is the role that the university community can play in technology development. 

In order to fully exploit this opportunity and create a stronger relationship between NASA and the university community, we urge that NASA seek input from the university community at all levels, including the traditional PI community as well as university administrators.  We look forward to seeing a carefully articulated set of goals for this effort at a future meeting, as well as an outline of the process that will be followed and the product that the community can expect.

Technology Readiness Task Force

We received the final report of our Technology Readiness Task Force (TRTF) at this meeting, which is appended to this letter.  We are in full agreement with its contents.  We also heard a presentation from Pete Ulrich on how Code S will utilize technology funds and interact with Code R under the latest reorganization.  Careful thought has led to an effective start on these complex problems. All parties have the same goal: to use the available funds to most rapidly create the best, most innovative missions. 

We remain concerned that despite the recent reorganization, barriers remain in advancing technology from concepts to missions in the most efficient way.  In particular, how Code S can address the longer-term issues in the TRTF report remains unclear, and the latest structure still tends to feed technology to individual missions rather than fully exploiting crosscutting issues. We encourage aggressive monitoring of the pros and the cons of the new structure, with the goal of discussing the matter again with SScAC in one year.

Research Program

As usual, we heard a report from Guenter Riegler about the Code S research program. The reorganization into clusters appears to be proceeding well, and Guenter is on track to set up the first Senior Review. We reiterate the importance of this review to the program, and we wish Guenter success in conducting it. We stand prepared to help in any way that we can.

As a final point, we heard from Jeff Rosendhal that this was his last meeting as Executive Secretary of SScAC. We'd like to thank Jeff warmly for his wonderful support of the committee's activities. If SScAC has been of use to Code S and the Agency in recent years, it has been largely as a result of Jeff's efforts.

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  
Andrew Christensen, Chair, SECAS

cc:        SScAC
B. Parkinson
L. Garver
J. Rosendhal
J. Alexander


8 May 2000

MEMORANDUM FOR SPACE SCIENCE ADVISORY COMMITTEE (SScAC)DR. STEVE SQUYRES 

FROM:Dr. Daniel Hastings, MIT
Christine Anderson, AFRL
Cochairs, Task Force for Technology Readiness

SUBJECT:Technology Readiness Task Force Recommendations

1.  The NASA Task Force on Technology Readiness conducted a review of near (2007) and far (2015) technology in support of the NASA Space Science Strategic Plan in September 1999.  The Findings of the Task Force were reported to the Space Science Advisory Committee on 1 March 2000.  Recommendations follow.

2.  Inadequacy of Funding.  The Task Force found a large imbalance in the resources available among the four Science Themes (as much as an order of magnitude difference). Thus the ability of the two Themes SEC and SEU to execute their portion of the Strategic Plan is questionable. We understand that the current President Financial Plan (PFP) contains a substantial augmentation that resolves some of these concerns for the SEC & SEU Themes. The Task Force recommends that all programs be examined and adjustments be made to reflect funding realities and Agency priorities.

3.  Program Organization and Management Structure. Fundamentally the Task Force found that the management structure and process ownership of the technology development is fragmented. This could jeopardize the achievement of the goals of the Strategic Plan. We recommend a management approach that integrates requirements and technology development efforts, establishes uniform standards, and guards against duplication as well as missing developments.  This must be done with support and participation from applicable NASA centers.  Incentives for cross center teaming must be developed and implemented.  We specifically recommend that such technology management focus on:

a. Integration across themes;

b. Long-term planning to accommodate multiyear technology development efforts;

c. Infrastructure capabilities supporting multiple missions

d. Exit criteria for the termination of a technology effort or its infusion into a flight development program

e. Assessment and mitigation of technological risk, and

f. Collaboration with other agencies sponsoring related technologies.

At the SScAC meeting in March 2000, we were informed that Dr. Ulrich has formed a Technology Steering Group chartered to construct and maintain a database of all the technology development efforts sponsored by the Space Science Enterprise; to perform analyses; and identify "gaps" and opportunities for synergism. This appears to be a good foundation, but not a substitute for a strong management function and future cross center/cross theme planning.

In view of more recent events, subsequent to the conclusion of our review, it seems appropriate to emphasize the issue of mission risk, noted above. Thus we recommend that systems analyses be undertaken for NASA to understand better the role of advanced technology as a potential source of risk and also as a tool for risk reduction.

4.  Infrastructure Capabilities.  The task force found that there appears to be no systematic approach for identifying infrastructure capabilities needed by Space Science as an Enterprise and common to several missions. New infrastructure capabilities might include: handling of samples returned from planets, comets, and asteroids; exploiting the exploding information technology to the conduct of space science; and upgrading and expanding the planetary communication network. One infrastructure effort that was described to the Task Force is the Intelligent Synthesis Environment: indeed it has the potential for changing the design and cost paradigm of space science missions. However, the program, as structured, has diffuse goals and no metrics and appeared to represent more a bolting together of software packages than an intellectual investment.

We recommend that a cross theme peer–reviewed effort be undertaken to identify infrastructure needs at a minimum in the areas of: information technology -as it supports Space Science Enterprise activities; interplanetary communication networks; planetary protection; and handling of samples retrieved from other celestial bodies.  Initiatives deemed worthy of implementation should be funded by reprioritizing the existing budget

5.  Leveraging of Other Agencies' R&D.We found that there was inadequate awareness and leveraging of similar technology work being pursued elsewhere. We felt this was particularly evident in the SEC presentations, but it was common to all themes. The potential leverage and savings are so substantial that, at the national level, it is mandatory to pursue interagency collaborations whenever possible. We commend NASA for trying to get other agencies to participate in NGST and wish to encourage other cross agency efforts as appropriate. Thus we recommend that activities and incentives be put in place -at all management levels -to overcome the known obstacles and create a work environment where such collaborations become part of the natural conduct, and that Centers participate more fully in the Space Technology Alliance, and consider appointing senior (SES level) representation to the Alliance in addition to the Headquarters representative.

6.  Continuing Review Process.  The Task Force on Technology Readiness felt the past year's review was a valuable exercise and recommends that a broad periodic independent technology review be made a routine part of NASA Space Science planning, on a biennial basis, just as the DOD has done with Scientific Advisory Board reviews.

CHRISTINE M. ANDERSON, SES
Director
AFRL, Space Vehicles

DANIEL HASTINGS, PhD
Professor, Aeronautics and Astronautics
MIT

             

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