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A Performance Assessment of Nasa’s Astrophysics Program 5 Findings and Recommendations Astronomy and astrophysics is in a golden age of discovery and understanding. Breakthroughs are being made throughout the field, and the associated dramatic leaps in understanding are creating new opportunities, attracting new scientists to astronomy and other fields of science and technology, and inspiring people of all ages. Finding: NASA’s Astrophysics program has played a central role in creating the current era of revolutionary discovery in astrophysics and is key to further progress now clearly within reach. As discussed in Chapter 3, NASA missions have given rise to an enormous breadth of scientific discoveries ranging from characterization of protoplanetary disks around nearby stars to measurements of supermassive black holes in active galactic nuclei to finding the seeds of cosmic structure in the cosmic microwave background. In all respects, these missions have delivered on their scientific promise in the best traditions of the NASA programs that proposed and executed them. These missions have positioned the field to capitalize on further scientific opportunities, as presented in Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium and Connecting Quarks with the Cosmos: Eleven Science Questions for the New Century. Finding: NASA’s 2003 Astrophysics program plan responded effectively to the recommendations made in the National Research Council reports Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium and Connecting Quarks
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A Performance Assessment of Nasa’s Astrophysics Program with the Cosmos. In particular, the 2003 plan properly addressed the stated priorities and was well optimized across mission goals, types, and sizes. Finding: Implementation of NASA’s 2003 Astrophysics program plan has been curtailed, limited by circumstances and events both internal and external to the agency. The 2006 plan further erodes NASA’s ability to efficiently address the diverse goals of the AANM survey and the Q2C report with the vigor needed to produce transformational science return. The 2003 NASA roadmaps for the Astrophysics program laid out plans to implement the majority of the priorities from the AANM survey and the Q2C report, in terms of both science objectives and the development of a diverse and well-balanced mission portfolio. However, as discussed in Chapter 4, the Astrophysics program’s fiscal posture changed considerably between 2003 and 2006. The science plan produced in 2006 retained most of the elements of the 2003 plan, but with a significantly lengthened timeline for implementation of the projects. As a result, NASA is no longer in a position to achieve the goals of the AANM decadal survey within the timeframe envisioned in that report. Finding: In a time of extraordinary potential for scientific discovery, the prospects have been substantially reduced for NASA’s contributing in the future to astrophysics over a diverse range of enterprises, and with the agility necessary to rapidly respond to opportunity. Finding: NASA’s Astrophysics Division does not have the resources to pursue the priorities, goals, and opportunities outlined in the AANM and Q2C reports. Furthermore, according to the FY 2007 budget request, funds for NASA’s Astrophysics program will be declining for the foreseeable future. The division has therefore chosen to concentrate its resources in two areas: the highest-priority missions in the AANM survey, and those missions that are still in development from the previous survey. The result is that the present program is no longer well balanced across a desirable range of scientific areas, mission sizes, and mission-enabling activities. The committee believes that these changes diminish the nation’s near-term ability to achieve the balance of science expectations articulated in the AANM and Q2C reports. The committee is also concerned that if a significant imbalance persists, deleterious effects on development of the workforce needed to sustain NASA and the astrophysics community will result. The committee believes that an optimal strategy would maintain a diverse portfolio that includes smaller programs and mission-enabling investment as well as the flagship missions.
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A Performance Assessment of Nasa’s Astrophysics Program Based on its analysis of NASA’s current Astrophysics program, the committee recommends that the agency rebalance its mission and mission activity portfolio with the goals of (1) increasing the science return from the program in the near term; (2) establishing an advisory structure that communicates more effectively with the astrophysics community as the current situation is resolved; and (3) preventing a similar situation in the next decade by setting more realistic and practical ground rules for the characterization of future projects and for the carryover of legacy projects in the next decadal survey in order to ensure progress in short- as well as long-term projects. Recommendation 1: NASA should optimize the projected science return from its Astrophysics program by (a) ensuring a diversified portfolio of large and small missions that reflect the science priorities articulated in the 2001 decadal survey Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium and (b) investing in the work required to bring science missions to their full potential: e.g., technology development, data analysis, data archiving, and theory. The most important step in implementing this recommendation is a reevaluation by the Astrophysics Division of the program’s mission balance, with the goal of restoring the Explorer line to the launch rate achieved in the early part of this decade. The division should also identify structural mechanisms (e.g., firewalls, cost caps, constraints on the concentration of resources in single programs) to protect small programs and mission-enabling activities such as technology development that will lay the groundwork for future missions and research support which are critical for optimizing the science return. The smaller missions and programs are particularly vulnerable to perturbations such as cost growth in large missions, changes in accounting systems, or project budget instability. NASA should also to seek to limit cost growth in missions by exploring ways to provide less expensive launch services (particularly for smaller missions), re-examining mission safety and assurance requirements to match them more appropriately to mission size, relaxing deorbit requirements for smaller spacecraft involved in low-cost missions, and finding improved ways to establish and maintain effective international collaborations on missions of all sizes. The committee realizes that implementing this recommendation may require the division to scale back larger programs that are currently in development. However, the committee concluded that the Explorer line is of the same priority as the top-ranked priorities in the moderate and large categories and should be implemented accordingly. It is essential that NASA find ways to accommodate a balance in its investment in large and small programs. Recommendation 2: NASA should consider changes in its advisory structure to shorten the path between advisory groups and relevant managers so
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A Performance Assessment of Nasa’s Astrophysics Program as to maximize the relevance, utility, and timeliness of advice as well as the quality of the dialogue with advice givers. Clear communication between stakeholders and the agency is critical to a strong partnership for successfully implementing national priorities and realizing community science aspirations. Currently advice of all kinds—from the high-level policy and strategic advice needed by NASA’s administrator and senior management to the more tactical expert advice needed by science managers—is transmitted vertically through the NASA Advisory Council to the administrator and then down to the relevant managers. Direct two-way connections between advisory committees and managers would foster several important goals, including timely provision of and access to input tailored to the needs of the managers at each level, strengthened communication between NASA and the scientific user community, and greater flexibility for the NASA Advisory Council to focus on issues of policy and high-level agency strategy. NASA might also wish to reconstitute informal management operations working groups to enable science managers to quickly and effectively obtain expert advice on specific issues. The committee suggests that a continual dialogue between vested parties will produce the most effective outcome, especially in circumstances when difficult choices may be required. Recommendation 3: NASA should recognize that ambitious missions could require significantly more than 10 years to complete, from conception through technology readiness and launch. NASA should insist that future decadal surveys specifically include in their prioritizing deliberations those projects carried over from previous surveys that have not yet entered development (NASA Phase C/D or equivalent). To enable an accurate assessment of science success and overall life-cycle costs, NASA should, in presenting potential missions to future survey committees, also distinguish between projects that are ready for implementation and those that require significant concept design or technology investment. One factor contributing to the science community’s current perception that NASA’s Astrophysics program is not making steady progress is the confusion over the status of missions recommended in previous decadal surveys. Division officials stated that because missions recommended for the previous decade were not prioritized with the new missions, they are unclear as to the priority of those missions. NASA should seek to prevent similar confusion in future decades by requesting that each successive decadal survey committee’s prioritization process include consideration of previously recommended missions that have not made significant progress within the proposed decade. Similarly, the agency should recognize the increasing complexity of its astrophysics missions and the likelihood that they will take more than a decade to complete. In particular, for future
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A Performance Assessment of Nasa’s Astrophysics Program decadal surveys the agency should identify which missions are ready for development within a decade and which need significant preparatory work. An optimal strategy would ensure progress in both categories. The committee concluded that it is critical to establish uniform criteria for the accurate estimation of program costs, risks, and contingencies, and to understand the uncertainties in each at each stage of a mission.
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