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500 Fifth Street, NW Washington, DC 20001 Phone: 202 334 3477 www.national-academies.org Space Studies Board September 15, 2006 Dr. Mary Cleave Associate Administrator Science Mission Directorate NASA Headquarters 300 E Street SW Washington, DC 20546 Dear Dr. Cleave: In your letter of April 12, 2006, to Space Studies Board (SSB) Chair Lennard Fisk, you requested that the Space Studies Board conduct a review of the Science Mission Directorateâs (SMDâs) draft Science Plan1 and provide its assessment and recommendations for how the draft might be improved. You asked for comments in the following areas: â¢ Responsiveness to National Research Council (NRC) recommendations in recent reports; â¢ Attention to interdisciplinary aspects and overall scientific balance; â¢ Utility to stakeholders in the scientific community; and â¢ General readability and clarity of presentation. In response to your request, the ad hoc Committee on Review of NASA Science Mission Directorate Science Plan was established and met July 11-13, 2006, in Washington, D.C., to review the draft Science Plan. This report discusses the committeeâs findings and offers related recommendations. The committee found the draft Science Plan to be an informative document demonstrating that a major NASA objective is to conduct scientific research to advance the fundamental understanding of Earth, the solar system, and the universe beyond. Some portions of the plan, such as that concerning astrophysics, do a truly excellent job of outlining why NASA carries out its science missions. The committee also found that the draft plan outlines a defensible set of rules for prioritizing missions within each of SMDâs discipline divisions, and it believes that SMD has made a serious effort to base its plans on the mission priorities established by the scientific communities that undertake and benefit from the missions that NASA conducts. Many of these priorities were established in NRC reports such as the decadal surveys, NASAâs responsiveness to which the committee evaluates in the attached report. Historically, NASA has benefited from the advice provided by its several scientific advisory structures, and their health is vital to the agencyâs success in implementing its mission. Although NASA was asked by Congress to develop a single prioritized list for missions across all four science disciplines (astrophysics, Earth science, heliophysics, and planetary science), for various reasons outlined in the report the committee does not believe that NASA should or could produce a prioritized list across disciplines at this time. However, the committee does have some concerns about the draft plan. The committee found that the lack of a comparison of the current plan to plans produced in 2003 obscured the fact that NASAâs space science plans have been significantly scaled back due to budget changes, and it recommends that 1 NASA Science Plan, Draft 3.0, June 23, 2006.
NASA include a comparison between the current plan and those produced in 2003 for the Earth and space sciences. The committee further notes that the NRCâs recent report An Assessment of Balance in NASAâs Science Program2 is largely neglected in the draft Science Plan. Although the NRC report was released shortly before the completion of the draft Science Plan, NASA representatives informed the committee that they had sufficient time to consider it. The committee acknowledges that the draft plan is based on the assumptions contained in the FY 2007 budget request and that the Balance report was critical of the adequacy of the budget to accomplish the total NASA plan. Nevertheless, the committee believes that the Balance reportâs recommendations are worthy of consideration and, where appropriate, incorporation in the NASA Science Plan. The committee found that the current plan overemphasizes mission-specific work at the expense of strategies and steps for achieving goals in mission-enabling areas such as research and analysis, maintaining the Deep Space Network, and technology development. In addition, the committee noted that the draft plan often declares an intention to implement a program or identifies a goal or mission as a top priority, but then does not indicate what steps NASA will take to achieve the goals or what strategies it will pursue to accomplish its priorities. The committee is concerned about the problem of mission cost growth and believes that if it is not successfully addressed, NASA will face the possibility of having to abandon either flagship missions or the ability to execute a balanced program. Mission cost growth and other factors identified in the attached report threaten the execution of the NASA Science Plan. The committee believes that addressing the issue of executability is a prerequisite for confidently defining a robust Science Plan, and it offers several recommendations on this subject. The committee recognizes that NASA is awaiting the forthcoming NRC decadal survey on Earth sciences. However, the committee wishes to express its concerns about recent developments in Earth science, particularly recent decisions concerning the National Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program, whereby climate science instruments were deleted from the satellites. Many of these instruments are crucial to understanding the changing Earth system, and a strategy is needed to deal with their deletion from NPOESS. By design, the draft plan addresses only those science programs that are conducted by SMD. The committee notes that an appreciation of the full extent of NASAâs science activity requires a look at a number of programs outside SMD, in particular, the lunar precursor and robotic program, and the life and microgravity science activities within the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD). The committee understands that Congress directed NASA to produce a Science Plan only for SMD. The committee concludes that the document would be improved if the introduction made clear the boundaries of the Science Planâs scope and also acknowledged that science is performed elsewhere within NASA as well, and the extent to which these other science programs are sensibly complementary to those within SMD. Some of the committeeâs recommendations are broad and apply to all four of SMDâs science disciplines, but the difficulties underlying the committeeâs concerns are more acute in some disciplines than in others. For example, the problems associated with controlling mission cost growth and preserving proper balance between large and small missions are now particularly pressing in astrophysics and, prospectively, in planetary science. The need to develop strategies for meeting future computing and modeling capabilities is particularly noticeable for Earth science and heliophysics. In addition, although the committee makes discipline-specific recommendations for the planetary and Earth sciences, it stresses that the astrophysics and heliophysics sections of the draft plan are also addressed in the more general recommendations and require equal attention. The committeeâs recommendations on the implementation and viability of the draft NASA Science Plan follow: 2 National Research Council, An Assessment of Balance in NASAâs Science Programs, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2006. ii
1. The NASA Science Plan should compare the key aspects of its 2003 Earth and space science plans with the 2006 plan in a list or table that shows how the current plan differs from the previous ones. This comparison would also provide some indication of the starting point for the new Science Plan, and the changes that have occurred since 2003. 2. NASA/SMD should provide some indication of the strategy it will use to determine how critically needed technologies will be developed for future missions and their proposed timescales. The committee recommends that NASA outline a strategic technology plan, providing an indication of the resources needed and the schedule that must be met to enable the ambitious goals of the plan. But NASA should also seek to protect general R&A funding from encroachment by technology R&A. 3. The NASA Science Plan should explicitly address realistic strategies for achieving the objectives of the mission-enabling elements of the overall program. The committee recommends that NASA: a. Undertake appropriate studies through its advisory structure in order to develop a strategic approach to all of its R&A programs (this strategy should include metrics for evaluating the proper level of R&A funding relative to the total program, the value of stability of funding levels in the various areas, and metrics for evaluating the success of these programs); and b. Develop a strategic plan to address computing and modeling needs, including data stewardship and information systems, which anticipates emergent developments in computational sciences and technology, and displays inherent agility. 4. NASA should improve mechanisms for managing and controlling mission cost growth so that if and when it occurs it does not threaten the remainder of the program, and should consider cost-capping flagship missions. Although NASA already does seek to manage and control mission cost growth, these efforts have been inadequate and the agency needs to evaluate them, determine their failings, and improve their performance. NASA should undertake independent, systematic, and comprehensive evaluations of the cost-to-complete of each of its space and Earth science missions that are under development, for the purpose of determining the adequacy of budget and schedule. 5. NASA/SMD should move immediately to correct the problems caused by reductions in the base of research and analysis programs, small missions, and initial technology work on future missions before the essential pipeline of human capital and technology is irrevocably disrupted. 6. For planetary science, the committee recommends as follows: a. NASA/SMD should incorporate into its Science Plan relevant recommendations from the NRC interim report on lunar science,3 when they are available, in such a way as to maintain the overall science priorities advocated by previous NRC studies, while recognizing that science advice will change as scientific understanding and technology improve. b. Although Mars should remain the prime target for sustained science exploration, the NASA Science Plan should acknowledge that missions to other targets in the solar system should not be neglected. c. Where the question of habitability (i.e., the ability of a planet to support life) is determined to be the main focus for exploration, a proper hierarchy of scientific goals and objectives should be developed, stronger pathways between the concept of habitability and proposed missions should be articulated and maintained, and basic discovery science should not be ignored. d. Life detection techniques should be clearly identified as an astrobiology strategic technology development area. 7. For Earth science, the committee recommends as follows: 3 National Research Council, The Scientific Context for the Exploration of the Moonâ¯Interim Report, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2006. iii
a. NASA/SMD should incorporate into its Science Plan the recommendations of the NRC Earth science decadal survey interim report,4 and should incorporate the recommendations of the Earth science decadal survey final report when it is completed. b. NASA/SMD should develop a science strategy for obtaining long-term, continuous, stable observations of the Earth system that are distinct from observations to meet requirements by NOAA in support of numerical weather prediction. c. NASA/SMD should present an explicit strategy, based on objective science criteria for Earth science observations, for balancing the complementary objectives of (i) new sensors for technological innovation, (ii) new observations for emerging science needs, and (iii) long-term sustainable science- grade environmental observations. The committee elaborates on its findings and recommendations in the attached report. Sincerely, A. Thomas Young, Chair Committee on Review of NASA Science Mission Directorate Science Plan Attachment: A Review of NASAâs 2006 Draft Science Plan cc: Bryant Cramer, Acting Director, Earth Science Division, NASA Richard Fisher, Director, Heliophysics Division, NASA James Green, Acting Director, Planetary Science Division, NASA Richard Howard, Acting Director, Astrophysics Division, NASA 4 National Research Council, Earth Science and Applications from Space: Urgent Needs and Opportunities to Serve the Nation, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2005. iv