Nation's Astronomers Continue Dialog with NASA Administrator Mike Griffin

Sep 26, 2006, 01:00 ET from American Astronomical Society

    WASHINGTON, Sept. 26 /PRNewswire/ -- The American Astronomical Society
 (AAS), the largest professional organization for research astronomers in
 the United States has received answers from NASA Administrator Mike Griffin
 to a series of important questions sent to him by email last week.
     As a follow-on to a question/answer session at the January 2006 meeting
 of the Society, the six questions were crafted by the AAS Committee for
 Astronomy and Public Policy (CAPP), approved by the Executive Committee of
 the Society and submitted by email to Dr. Griffin by AAS President J. Craig
 Wheeler from the University of Texas and CAPP Chair, Jack Burns from the
 University of Colorado.
     President Wheeler said, "The Columbia disaster put the state of NASA,
 its science programs, and the human space flight program under a bright
 focus. As a result, NASA has been tasked to do too much with too few
 resources. Astronomers have been traumatized as plans on which they have
 built their careers and planned the careers of their students have been
 constricted or cancelled. Astronomers do not do these things because they
 will lead to immense riches. They do them because their hearts and souls
 are captured by the wonder at the Universe they are privileged to explore.
 That is why they leap to the defense of projects, long in the planning, and
 consuming of their scientific passions, that are threatened with cut-backs
 and cancellation. This dialog with Administrator Griffin is one means by
 which NASA and the astronomy community can work together to accomplish the
 most exciting, productive science with the most efficient use of taxpayers
     Dr. Jack Burns, chair of the AAS Committee for Astronomy and Public
 Policy said, "We in the AAS appreciate the difficult challenges that Dr.
 Griffin faces as NASA Administrator at this time -- returning the Shuttle
 to successful flight operations, finishing the International Space Station,
 planning the infrastructure for a return to the Moon and later to Mars,
 and, very importantly, maintaining a vigorous program of scientific
 exploration of the cosmos. Administrator Griffin has clearly expressed his
 on-going commitment to solicit the community's advice through the NASA
 Advisory Committee, the Space Studies Board of the National Academy of
 Science, and Decadal Survey process. We welcome this additional direct
 dialog via his candid answers to these AAS questions in an effort to
 achieve both the astronomy community's goals and NASA's mission to advance
 and communicate scientific knowledge."
     Kevin Marvel said, "Having an open communication channel with
 Administrator Griffin is important now more than ever given the pressures
 NASA faces. I think it is great he took the time to attend our meeting in
 January and even better that he finds the time to respond to our questions.
 I hope this dialog can continue."
     The questions and Administrator Griffin's responses are included in
 their entirety below.
     1. How do you integrate strategic advice from the NRC, CAA, and AAAC
 and tactical advice from the NAC science subcommittees into NASA planning?
 What kind of input from the science community would be most useful to you
 and your senior staff, particularly those in SMD who manage the science
     I must first note that "strategic" advice is not absent from the NAC.
 To classify their input as "tactical" is to misinterpret their role as
 NASA's primary advisor. Being in essence an "internal" advisor to NASA, the
 NAC is most useful in helping NASA to consider and to shape strategic
 priorities for future years, while also rendering tactical advice in the
 handling of current programs, yet all in a manner which respects
 Presidential policy and Congressional authorization and appropriations
 legislation. This is advice which we at NASA can consider and, if it seems
 sound, implement without conflict. Recommendations from other committees do
 not necessarily share this property.
     The NRC/NAS/SSB (Space Studies Board) is a primary strategic advisor to
 Congress on the nation's space science priorities and, as such, we at NASA
 take the recommendations of that committee very seriously, and should. I
 have been very explicit in saying that it is my intention that science
 priorities at NASA should follow the decadal plans of the various SSB
 subcommittees wherever possible. These decadal plans are the primary
 touchstone for NASA, and represent some of the most useful strategic advice
 we can get from the NRC. When programs overrun or budget appropriations are
 reduced, then NASA management must make cuts somewhere. While practical
 issues of programmatic implementation will always be present, science
 community priorities should inform these cuts. The stated priorities of the
 NRC are most useful in this regard. Since these priorities are not required
 to be consistent with those of the President or Congress, NRC opinions
 provide the best view we at NASA have as to the unfettered priorities of
 the scientific community with regard to space science programs. We cannot
 always implement those priorities, but it is very important to know them.
     Also, we at NASA use the Academy on a regular basis for specific
 studies which are not of particular interest to Congress. We do this when
 we need advice or perspective on a specific topic where our internal "bench
 strength," or that within our NAC Science subcommittees, is not sufficient.
 I would anticipate that this relationship would continue as it has, more or
 less indefinitely.
     The AAAC advises the NSF, DoE, and NASA. My interactions with Garth
 Illingworth, who presently chairs this committee, have been quite
 favorable; Garth is a true professional who cares about the program. But it
 is not at all clear to me how AAAC advice to different agencies with
 different charters and having disparate OMB examiners and Congressional
 oversight committees can be utilized effectively. A recommendation
 acceptable to one agency's internal managers and external overseers might
 well -- and often does -- fall afoul of the preferences of another. I do
 not know how to resolve this issue. It seems to me that AAAC
 recommendations can only be of such a general nature that they offend no
 one, if they are to be implementable at all.
     2. You indicated recently that you would like to see science increase
 at the same rate as the overall agency budget (2.4% in the current FY07
 budget request). Could you elaborate on when and how this might be
     Science grows 1% through FY11, and then would grow according to NASA's
 topline growth (currently at inflation, approximately 2.4% per year)
 starting in FY12. This would show in the President's Budget Request for
 FY08, which is released in February, 2007.
     3. Historically, NASA science missions have cost more and taken longer
 than originally envisioned, which complicates forward planning and leads to
 recurrent budget problems. Based upon your experience in NASA and as a
 leader of industry, can you envision a process for obtaining more accurate
 assessments of cost, schedule, and technical risk?
     No. I think that the uncertainties in program planning, budgeting, and
 control that we experience in state-of-the-art, first-of-a-kind missions
 will always be with us. We have decades of experience across hundreds of
 programs to suggest that this is so. The best recommendation I have for
 coping with such problems is to allocate appropriate reserves on the "front
 end" of any program, and then leave that reserve in place! Per my
 direction, all new NASA programs are being budgeted at the 70% confidence
 level, absent special considerations. I have made a specific point of
 desiring realistic, rather than optimistic, cost estimates for new
 programs, and have established a strong Program Analysis & Evaluation
 Office, reporting to me, with independent cost estimation expertise. All of
 these things are departures from past practice, and should help alleviate
 the collateral damage which occurs to a portfolio of programs when one of
 them overruns badly. It must, however, be understood that one result of
 these collective changes is that fewer programs will receive funding
 approval. I believe that NASA, the taxpayers, and the science community
 will be better served by ensuring that priority science missions benefit
 from healthy funding, than by spreading the wealth among a larger number of
 missions, none of which receives adequate funding.
     4. Both the Decadal survey and a recent NRC Assessment from the Space
 Studies Board have emphasized the importance of balance of projects of
 different scale in an optimized science program. What are your views on the
 importance of balance and how it might be achieved?
     I believe this balance is crucial; I completely support the NRC/SSB
 position on this point. Nothing could have replaced the Great
 Observatories; on the other hand, none of them produced the landmark
 results on the distribution of energy in the early universe which were
 revealed to us by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, a rather modest
 mission. We need to determine which goals we are trying to reach and what
 results we are seeking, and then design the systems necessary to attain
 them, without initial biases as to whether we need, or don't need, missions
 of a certain "class."
     5. There are indications that NASA is facing a workforce crisis that
 may threaten its ability to carry out its mission. Given that many AAS
 members are faculty at colleges and universities or otherwise involved in
 education, what do you think that the AAS can do to help NASA address this
 looming problem?
     We do not have a looming problem or a workforce crisis. 25% of the NASA
 workforce will be eligible to retire within the next five years, though of
 course not all will do so. I regard this as an opportunity to bring in the
 next generation of scientists and engineers, who will take us to the Moon
 and Mars. There are larger issues, which I think have been well publicized,
 concerning the uncomfortably small proportion of U.S. students who are
 choosing to enroll in the mathematical, scientific, or engineering
 disciplines. This is a concern which I believe to be rooted in the nation's
 culture and in the priorities which have been set for government spending
 by many Administrations and Congresses in recent decades. If the AAS can
 play a constructive role in a discussion of these priorities as they relate
 to the future of science and technology in our country, I welcome it.
     6. As space science missions become more ambitious and as other nations
 have developed more capabilities in space, international partnerships have
 become increasingly common, and with them they have brought new challenges.
 What do you think can be done to increase the effectiveness of such
 partnerships in the future?
     Actually, I think they are quite effective as they stand today. It has
 actually become less common for the U.S. to execute a space science mission
 entirely by itself, rather than to employ some form of international
 partnership. The efficiency of international cooperation on such missions
 could be improved through greater flexibility in the implementation of U.S.
 ITAR and export control regulations.

SOURCE American Astronomical Society