What Keeps YOU Awake at Night?

What Keeps YOU Awake at Night?

What keeps NASA’s Jim Green awake at night?  Thoughts of “the seven minutes of terror from the top of the [Mars] atmosphere to landing” at the Gale Crater on the surface of Mars coming up for the Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity) in August. 

Green is the director of NASA’s planetary science division in the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC.  He was responding to a question from Charlie Kennel, chair of the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Space Studies Board (SSB) at today’s SSB meeting.   Curiosity is using a unique and, to say the least, technically challenging method of landing on Mars.  Called the “sky hook,” the YouTube video is enough to keep anyone awake until the sequence is successfully executed on August 5 PDT (August 6 EDT).

The “what keeps you awake at night” question was directed at all the SMD representatives on a panel at the SSB meeting.  SMD Deputy Associate Administrator (AA) Chuck Gay filled in for AA John Grunsfeld.   Along with Green, other panelists were earth science division director Mike Freilich, heliophysics division director Barbara Giles, astrophysics deputy director Mike Moore (filling in for Paul Hertz, newly named astrophysics division director), James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) project director Rick Howard, and Wilt Sanders, Explorer program scientist.

Howard said it is the infamous “unknown unknowns” that give him insomnia, but he assured the SSB that the rebaselined JWST program is sufficiently robust to handle anything that comes up.   He believes one key to the success of JWST is maintaining good communications not only within the program and NASA, but with stakeholders, especially on Capitol Hill.

Moore, who deals with the rest of the astrophysics portfolio, said his worry is how to implement the missions called for in the 2010 NRC Decadal Survey for astronomy and astrophysics with NASA’s existing budget, and how to work with the Europeans on achieving science objectives.  He also is worried about the Gravity and Extreme Magnetism (GEMS) small Explorer mission that he said has technical and cost challenges.  “We hope we can thread that needle,” he said, and “be honest and straightforward about cost.” 

Giles cited the challenge of keeping the heliophysics division’s five projects that are in development on schedule and cost.  “There is no flexibility in this budget,” she said, for any program to “extend beyond their commitment.” 

Launch vehicle cost increases and the unreliability of smaller launch vehicles like the Taurus XL booster that sent two earth science probes (OCO and GLORY) to a watery grave was a concern across all the SMD divisions.   Moore, however, defended the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs), Atlas 5 and Delta 4, that just celebrated their 58th consecutive launch success earlier this week with the launch of a satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office.   Noting that he worked on the EELV program earlier in his career, Moore conceded they are expensive, but argued that the most expensive space missions are the ones that end up in the ocean.  Launch reliability, as demonstrated by the EELVs, is important despite the cost, in his view. 

Others on the panel were anxious for successors to the Delta 2 launch vehicle to become certified by NASA.   SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Antares are two examples.  Asked when the need for those vehicles will become “critical,” Giles and Green said that time is already upon them.  Program managers have to budget to the highest possible launch cost, which has a significant impact on resources available for the rest of the program when those costs are high as they are for the EELVs. 


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