AAS #4: NASA Town Hall

Contributed by
Jan 8, 2008

Forgive these rather long expository posts; I'll get to real astronomy very soon, trust me. But I am reporting on what's happening here in the order it occurs.

A fixture at these AAS meetings are what're called Town Hall Sessions, where high-ranking members of some community come and talk to the astronomers. Directly after Mike Griffin's talk, NASA held a Town Hall. Speaking were Alan Stern, NASA's Associate Administrator for Science, as well as several other NASA folks.

Stern gave an interesting talk. There has been a lot of worrying in the astrophysics community recently that money is being taken away to pay for other things (like, future observatories being defunded to pay for going back to the Moon - and these were legitimate complaints, I'll add).

However, Stern pointed out that that cost overruns across the Science Mission Directorate of NASA were almost $5.8 billion over five years. That's nearly twice the amount of money taken out of SMD to fund other programs. In other words, if we could control costs, we wouldn't have to worry nearly as much about funding cuts or funding transfers.

A few years ago, I heard Griffin say that these aren't cost overruns, they are proposal underfunds. In other words, the teams proposing missions don't ask for enough money. Shocker! That's the environment of the way we fund projects: when you compete for missions, it's very tempting to ask for less money than you need so that you might look more frugal (or at least look like you run a tighter ship) than your competitor. I'll say that having been on several proposals for missions, I've never seen this personally, but I can see how it can happen easily enough. And it clearly does; many missions run overbudget. Sometimes that's honest; it's impossible to know all the troubles you'll have later in the mission that will delay launch and cost more money. Bt it sure does sound like sometimes, a mission budget may be lowballed on purpose.

Stern's talk was a stark contrast to that of Mike Griffin's, though in essence he said many of the same things. Stern was far more positive, being clear that the astronomical community needs to work with NASA to keep costs down, and with that cooperation we can aid NASA hugely. I liked his attitude of cooperation more than Griffin's attitude of chastisement. I think we need both attitudes, at least some mix of them. But I'd like more of Stern's on the balance.

And I'll leave this with some cool news: NASA recently announced that they will start accepting proposals for a new science mission. They ask teams to send in their Notice of Intent, that is, a letter stating the team will be sending in a proposal. When they made that announcement, they received 85 Notices of Intent. Clearly, scientists still have a lot of trust and support for NASA. I love to hear that; it takes years to get a mission put together and it's good to see not only that NASA is opening up more mission opportunities, but also that that astronomy community is jumping on those opportunities.

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