NASA IG Wants Improvements to Planetary Science Senior Reviews

NASA IG Wants Improvements to Planetary Science Senior Reviews

NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) is seeking improvements in how NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) decides on extending mission operations in its four scientific disciplines, especially planetary science. 

SMD has four divisions that manage its scientific spacecraft — astrophysics, earth science, heliophysics, and planetary science.  Those spacecraft routinely operate for years after their primary missions are completed and SMD holds “Senior Reviews” every two years to assess whether extending the mission operations for each spacecraft is a worthwhile investment in terms of the scientific return.

The OIG report issued today generally praised the Senior Reviews for astrophysics, earth science, and heliophysics for including all eligible projects and providing budgetary and programmatic guidance for five years.  By contrast, the OIG criticized planetary science Senior Reviews  because they “unnecessarily excluded some projects,” focused on a shorter time frame, and “had no documented rationale for extended mission budget guidelines.”  SMD’s Planetary Science Division (PSD) just completed its 2014 Senior Review.

That is not to say that the other three divisions got a complete green light.  The report goes on to say that all four divisions provide guidance that projects in extended operations should cost less, with astrophysics and heliophysics specifying than the costs for extended mission operations should be one-third less that during the primary mission phase. Only rarely are costs reduced to that level, however, and sometimes they actually go up.  Of the 22 projects investigated, only one received one-third less in its first year of extended operations and 10 of the 22 received more and the “pattern remained relatively constant through the first 3 years of extended operations.”  According to a chart in the report, examples of the projects that received more in their first year of extended operations than in the last year of primary operations are Aqua, Cloudsat, IBEX, Spitzer Space Telescope, STEREO, SWIFT, and Terra.

The OIG offered four recommendations to improve the Senior Review process, three of which were targeted specifically at the PSD.  SMD Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld responded in a letter that is appended to the report.  He generally concurred with the recommendations while acknowledging that there may be cases where flexibility is required.   For example, the OIG recommended that funding and program guidance be provided for “at least the next four fiscal years,” instead of two as is currently the practice for PSD.  Grunsfeld said he was not opposed to reconsidering PSD’s two-year horizon, but that the missions vary enough between divisions that “tailored approaches” may be needed. 

Grunsfeld also said that NASA would continue to exclude missions from Senior Reviews if their primary mission operations had not begun by the time the Senior Review was conducted.  For example, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission was not included in the recently completed 2014 Senior Review because it had not yet reached Mars.  The OIG argued, however, that the Senior Review covered operations for FY2015-2016 and by then MAVEN will be past its primary operational period.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.