The Changing Environment for Science at NASA
The conditions under which NASA now operates are vastly different from those that existed when it was founded and under which many of its ground rules and traditions were established. Recognizing these differences is essential to deriving a new set of operating maxims. Addressed below are the changes in the environment that are especially relevant to the sciences.
RATIONALE FOR SPACE SCIENCE
Space science began with the use of sounding rockets immediately after World War II and rapidly evolved with the advent of satellites —indeed, the first satellite was scientific, conceived in conjunction with the International Geophysical Year. A major boost came with the creation of NASA and with the “space race,” leading to a vigorous exploration program consisting of planetary, space physics, and astronomical missions. Initially, most scientific investigations were carried out primarily for science's sake. Later, when NASA was a major player in space applications programs and especially in those years when science and applications resided in the same program office, Earth science was conducted with an eye toward useful applications as well as for science's sake. Nevertheless, even there science was the dominant rationale.
Today there is an increased interest in applications of scientific advancements for direct public and commercial benefit and in transfer to the larger technical communities of technological innovations stimulated by science missions. Ironically, when space applications programs were turned over to the mission agencies (e.g., NOAA), some of the more effective linkages between science and technology were lost, so that the utility of space applications programs has diminished, counter to prevailing policy.
Much of the planning for space science in the late 1980s assumed continued real total budget growth and maintenance of science at the level of 20 percent of the total NASA budget. Now it has become clear that the best that can be expected is a level budget in current (“then-year”) dollars, and thus a declining budget in real terms. Indeed, in the President's Budget for FY 1996 submitted to the Congress in February 1995, the budget for NASA is projected to fall by about 8 percent by the year 2000 in current dollars, almost 20 percent in real terms. The corresponding decrease in the real science budget is almost as large, about 16 percent for science R&D and science support, taken together (see Figure 2.2). While
the budget plan for the next five years seems to reflect a continued high priority for science, the fencing-off of the International Space Station at a fixed annual level of $2.1 billion and the Space Station 's essential need for Shuttle support potentially expose NASA's science programs to further budget reductions.
The space technology budget is equally vulnerable. New spacecraft and instrument technologies offer the potential for more productive science missions at lower cost, yet this potential may not be realized without adequate investment in the development of those technologies. Further, the space technology program includes the NASA part of advanced launch vehicle development. Though that program offers to eventually lower costs for transportation to space, it will, for the near future, compete for already limited technology funds.
THE CHANGING CHARACTER OF MISSIONS AND TECHNOLOGY
The early NASA spacecraft programs were implemented relatively rapidly and inexpensively, two-to three-year developments being the norm. As the space sciences matured during the 1970s and 1980s, the expanding knowledge base exerted pressure for more sophisticated measurements and more capable missions. These demands, along with administrative delays, led to greater expense and to longer projects. Where most cradle-to-grave project lifetimes during the Apollo era were a few years, major projects started in the late 1970s through the early 1990s often extended over a decade. By the 1980s, with “flagship” missions costing a billion dollars or more, it became evident that very few such missions could be mounted; that if they were, there would be no room for complementary missions; and that if they failed, their loss would be highly damaging. Higher costs and longer projects meant that individual investigators had fewer flight opportunities. Principal investigators of large projects became less willing to risk compromising quality, capability, or reliability to reduce mission costs. Because new technologies often appear risky, managers were wary of using them on very large space science projects, dampening the infusion of new technologies. Figure 3.1 shows schematically the large mission approach that prevailed at NASA until recently, an approach that led to sporadic, but often ground-breaking or astounding scientific results.
Ultimately, the evolution toward ever larger and longer projects became unsustainable and led to a backlash toward “smaller, faster, cheaper” missions. When combined with today's diminishing budgets, the 25-year ratcheting growth of mission cost and duration has reduced flight opportunities in many disciplines to the point where it has become difficult to maintain scientific vigor. While in some disciplines big missions may be necessary to produce seminal science, small projects are the seed corn in many others. Small projects are incubators of new ideas and of new scientific talent, and the exposure of student scientists and engineers to NASA technologies through small projects is a very effective mechanism for technology transfer.
One early response was the creation of the Planetary Observer concept for a series of somewhat smaller planetary exploration missions to be funded annually at about a constant level, analogous to the Earth-orbital Explorer family. (This concept for an annually funded series was never developed according to original precepts, and only the ill-fated Mars Observer mission was implemented.) Later, advisory groups also concluded that, while some objectives might only be achievable through large missions, a larger number of small missions could offer significant scientific advancements in reasonable time scales while encouraging technological innovation.1,2
Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program, Report of the Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program, December 1990.
Vice President's Space Policy Advisory Board, The Future of the U.S. Industrial Base, November 1992.
When budget constraints became even tighter, the need for still smaller missions was recognized for FY 1992 planning in space physics, where a series of “intermediate missions,” missions costing on the order of $200 million, was proposed. Solar system exploration joined the trend to smaller missions with the Discovery program; restructuring of the Explorer program (astrophysics and space physics) to focus on small and medium Explorer missions was also begun. Not only fiscal constraints, but also the occurrence of cost overruns, delays, and failures of the larger missions, with the attendant high cost penalty (e.g., Mars Observer, Hubble Space Telescope corrective optics), contributed to the trend toward smaller missions at a higher flight rate. Upon his arrival at NASA in spring 1992, Administrator Daniel S. Goldin accelerated the trend toward “smaller, faster, cheaper” missions employing advanced technologies, carefully focused mission objectives, lower-cost launch vehicles, simpler management techniques, and, where appropriate, reduced management oversight.
The foregoing discussion of the trend from large missions to “smaller-faster-cheaper” in space science does not answer the important question of whether the approach now being taken will yield more or less “science per dollar.” In spite of the many obvious advantages of a frequent flight rate, this is a complex issue and outside the scope of the present study. Rather, the changing mix of mission sizes was taken as a given for the purposes of analyzing management options for NASA's space science program.
Technology for Space Science
During the heyday of the large missions, one consequence of the intense competition for costly flight projects was to encourage the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to build up in-house science and engineering competence that could conceive, develop, and fly flagship missions. Unwelcome by-products of this apparent self-sufficiency were isolation of the flight centers from outside technologies and domination of flight projects by in-house perspectives on technology. Such insularity is counter to the premise that science is strengthened by open access to ideas and technology. It is also counter to the premise that NASA scientists enable science in space for the broader scientific community.
NASA has recognized these problems and is using technology to encourage industry and university participation in new programs such as Discovery, Small Explorer (SMEX), mid-size Explorer (MidEX),
Small Satellite Technology Initiative (SSTI—the Lewis and Clark projects), and New Millennium. To achieve higher flight rates at lower costs, NASA proposes across-the-board efforts to incorporate new technologies in flight and ground hardware and in processes for managing flight projects. NASA management has gone so far as to reject proposed flight projects that would achieve their scientific goals but did not include proposals for significant new technologies. The agency is also exploring innovative ways to accomplish significant science with smaller spacecraft. For example, it is investigating the feasibility of satisfying the need for large apertures and simultaneous observations with a constellation of small spacecraft. Not only would this avoid the cost and risk of large and complex platforms, but distributed observing systems offer the possibility of large synthetic apertures and their greater spatial resolution.
Figure 3.2 shows the new approach that NASA is now adopting to create an ongoing stream of scientific results by increasing the number of flight missions and increasing the use of new technologies.
THE GROWTH OF CAPABILITIES OUTSIDE OF NASA
NASA was formed in response to a political situation in which the United States was perceived as ominously lagging the Soviet Union in space capability. Space science became a major component of the emerging space program soon after. At that time, there was little expertise in either space science per se or in spacecraft or launch vehicle development anywhere but in government laboratories (e.g., the U.S. Army Redstone Arsenal, the Naval Research Laboratory, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and JPL). During the next several decades, capability in the space sciences was successfully fostered by NASA in the university community, resulting in a capability that in most areas of the space sciences equals or exceeds that present in government laboratories. Similarly, in spacecraft design and construction there are a number of competitive major aerospace contractors that have the capability to design, build, and operate major spacecraft. Recently, a number of smaller companies have been formed to concentrate on the small end of the spacecraft market. NASA no longer has a monopoly on technical competence; the balance of work between in-house and contracted effort must be reexamined.
A part of NASA's charter has been to transfer its technologies to U.S. industry to improve
international competitiveness and to U.S. universities to improve science and engineering education. NASA has been extremely successful in both of these areas. This transfer, when combined with the large investments in industrial space technology by DoD over the past quarter-century, has shifted leadership in many cutting-edge technologies from NASA toward industry and academia. NASA now possesses centers of excellence in particular technologies, but none of the NASA field centers is a world leader in every space technology.
NASA's culture has not evolved with these realities. The flight centers are insular, and flight projects are overly dominated by resident technologies and methodologies. The ethos of “not invented here” can go so far that technologies are not shared between GSFC and JPL and these flight centers do not seek technologies from NASA's research centers such as Lewis or Ames. When centers do not voluntarily communicate and work with each other, contractors with jobs at two or more centers often provide the only effective transfer of technologies among centers. The NASA Administrator is attempting to move this insular culture toward a recognition that NASA is now part of a larger technology community, that NASA is obligated to contribute to that community, and that it is wise to draw from it for its own programs.
Because NASA has not had an agency-wide technology planning effort since the 1991 Integrated Technology Plan, there has been no forum to involve industry or academia in global technology planning for the agency. In the past, NASA has tended to place its far-term technology investments in-house while allocating specific tasks associated with near-term development to industry and to the universities. The University Space Engineering Research Center program was an exception to placing far-term technology development in-house, but that program was mandated by Congress and ceased after only five years.
The management of science at NASA presents several challenges in today's environment. With the recent downsizing of Headquarters and the relocation of program management to the field centers, the potential exists to diminish both Headquarters' knowledge about the status of programs and its ability to defend them in the political arena. A second potential problem is conflict of interest, where centers could favor in-house capability over that existing in universities and industry. Assurances must be built into the evolving system that the entire procurement and selection process will be conducted without bias.
Another potential problem is that the crisper organizational division that now exists between NASA's strategic enterprises increases the possibility of greater fragmentation of the overall NASA program, leading to inadequate cross-enterprise cooperation and coordination. This would be especially detrimental to the relationship between the space science enterprise and the human exploration and space transportation enterprises, both of which have direct connections to the space sciences but could evolve in directions less supportive of the conduct of science.
The NASA strategic plan, which was updated in February 1995, provides important information on the agency's place in the nation's R&D environment and its planned contributions to national goals; it also explains the enterprise-based strategic planning framework that NASA has adopted. More recently, the office of the Chief Scientist has released a draft for comment of a new science policy document.3 This guide gives an overview of agency policy on a number of topics that are also discussed in the following chapters of this report, including the roles of the various participants in NASA's science programs and the agency's approach to assessing and maintaining quality.
NASA, Science in Air and Space: NASA's Science Policy Guide (Draft for Public Comment), July 1995.