Monday, March 7, 2011

Hope and a Call to Action: Planetary Decadal Survey Released

Steve Squyres (left) and Jim Green (right) answer questions Monday Night at LPSC following the unveiling of the Planetary Decadal survey. Image is a screen capture from the live feed recap (I attended in person).

I can remember when I first met Steve Squyres. It was way back in May of 2004 when I was unbelievably green and doing a two week internship on MER at the behest of my advisor, Peter Smith. I was in the microscopic imager room in Pasadena with Nicole Spanovich (now at JPL) and he stuck his head in to see what was happening. Nicole introduced us and I remember him saying hello to me. I don't remember what I said in return, but I do recall that before I could think of something clever to say, he was off again to the next instrument room.

I admit that I was a bit in awe. I had watched his talk on the first day of my very first LPSC and to this day I can remember being blown away by it and the sequence of talks that followed. Carefully and systematically over the course of three hours, the results were presented like bricks in a wall whose sum total showed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that there had previously been liquid flowing where Opportunity had landed. Never at a conference since have I ever seen a case presented more clearly and more effectively.

Back at JPL, his work ethic on MER was legendary; and I was told stories about how he would chair the Science Operations Working Group (SOWG) on Spirit, and then do it again with Opportunity 12 hours later; repeating the cycle for days on end. He certainly seemed the proverbial kid in a candy store in that seat as Science Lead when I had the chance to observe him at work.

This might seem like an excessive digression, but I tell you all of this for one important reason. The document released today is what it is because Steve was in charge of it. The statement of task asked for an implementable plan, and that is exactly what he delivered. I've only given a cursory look so far (I hope to provide more commentary later once I have read it in detail) but it appeals strongly to the engineer within me. And at the unveiling, I appreciated once again Steve's skill at making a case - the last two slides, in particular, were the work of a master.

That skill was needed because, as we discovered, the leaks were indeed correct and there was pain to be dealt out. Necessary pain, I feel, (and I will return to this point) but pain nevertheless. This was particularly true for the flagships.

Furthermore, we now know much more about the thinking behind the details released yesterday. MAX-C isn't just about another rover for Mars, it's about getting a handle on Mars Sample Return after having pushed it out repeatedly for decades. By prioritizing this first step, the program will enable the process by which pieces of Mars will make their way into terrestrial labs for analysis and curation.

And that mysterious $1 billion descope on MAX-C? That comes from NASA refusing to deliver ESA's Exo-Mars Rover on which the Europeans have already spent millions. What if $2.5 billion is still too much? "There is no plan B" Squyres said, implying that MAX-C was not worth doing if it did not produce a cache of well-documented samples for MSR. That descope would push the mission below the "Science Floor," as we say in the business. With the Scout program a goner and no Mars-based New Frontiers options, it could be MAX-C or bust for the Mars community.

But the pain dealt out to ESA and us Martians pales in comparison to the situation with EJSM (now called JEO). The sticker shock of that mission - $4.7 billion - came from the cost evaluations done by aerospace corporation and were much higher than the cost estimates provided by JPL, APL and GSFC  "by a factor of pi/2," as Squyres said. The cost inflation is based on previous missions and, perhaps, anticipates overruns, but some members of the community were incensed. Britney Schmidt (whom I profiled last year) bravely spoke out in the defence of JEO during the question period, recounting the history of the mission as originally conceived under a $2 billion cost cap. While this later grew beyond $3 billion with added functionality, the nearly $5 billion figure seemed to blindside those associated with the mission. I got the impression that Britney wanted to know if JEO had been set up to fail. You have to feel for EJSM/JEO's project management of Bob Pappalardo and Curt Neibur, who were sitting a few rows ahead of me, inscrutable.

Beyond the flagships there was much to be pleased about. NASA R&A will see a boost if this proposal is adopted, as will Technology Development (pegged at 8% of Planetary Mission Directorate funds). Furthermore, there is support for a wide-open discovery program with selection opportunities every 2 years, and two more new frontiers missions over this decade with destinations designed to give good science while preserving some "programatic balance." I share Ross Beyer's quibble here that I would have preferred to have seen NF be a more wide open program (I loved Jason Barnes' Nuclear Titan Aircraft AVIATR), but here Squyres' hands were tied.

Now that I've dispensed with the explanations, we cut to the heart of the matter. In politics, it's often said that you can tell if a deal is fair if it makes everyone a bit unhappy. That was certainly the case here. While there is some pain, as I recounted yesterday, perhaps it is better to suffer it now than to die the death of a thousand cuts should JEO have ballooned with overruns. Practicality demands that we have to give up some dreams today in order to move forward. But yet, there is hope. As Squyres pointed out, Voyager and Magellan all suffered massive descopes from their original plans and yet have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. And, despite the pain, the program proposed is a rich one that other nations (Canada included) can only dream of being able to pursue.

Squyres has also done the community another extremely valuable service. By creating a realistic, reliable and implementable plan, he has drawn the plight of the program into crisp focus. Had the 2003 deacadal survey committee been told that their budget would not increase, but fall by 24%, I imagine that they would be concerned, but would not have been deterred. Their job was to simply to set Science goals and we would not have found out until much later that we couldn't complete the work we set out to do with the actual resources.

But because of Steve's hard work, we know what the proposed changes requested by the president to NASA's budget a few weeks ago mean. We're not talking about reduced functionality: as Squyres summed it up: "If these numbers do not change it means the end of flagship science in the United States." These are no minor cuts, as Jim Green emphasized in graphical form, fully 50% of the uncommitted resources over the next ten years are planned to disappear. Under those circumstances, even ending all flagship activities will not staunch the bleeding.

But, and this is where the call to action comes in, budgets beyond 2012 are not set in stone, instead they are "notional." In a sense, the president is throwing down the gauntlet. If we as a community and as a greater public can come together we can save planetary science. So if you want to see pictures from the Europan Ocean, if you want to know if life ever existed on Mars write your congressman and let them know that for less than the cost of a single shuttle flight per year, we can still have the best science-driven exploration program in the world. Let them know that you support the decadal survey. That doesn't just go for my american compatriots. If the US leads, others will follow and we can leverage the resources of all spacefaring nations. That's the message I'm taking with me to the Star Symposium when I get back to Toronto.

What about the Planetary Science community? While I understand Erin's concerns in her comment on my post from yesterday and I share Mark Sykes's expressed distaste of the lack of transparency in the decadal survey process, I echo vk over at when I say that this is a document that I can support. There was abundant community input and I believe that the scientists tasked with carrying out this survey made their choices as best they could. We as a community need to come out in favour of this document, not because it is perfect, but because of the critical time through which we pass. If we devolve into bickering and do not hang together now, I fear that the decadal survey of 2021 will preside over a much smaller, less vibrant and generally impoverished group of scientists. Many of us may have understood this implicitly - the meeting room emptied much quicker than I expected following the presentation and the questions asked of Squyres and Green were much more tepid.

Beyond our community, I feel that in recent years, our work on space missions has truly been a highlight of what NASA does. More to the point, it has been inspirational out of proportion to the less than 10% of the NASA budget that planetary science takes up. As much as I support human space exploration and as much as I feel that the future of the human race lies beyond the Earth, I can't help but feel like the true boundary-pushing exploration over the past 40 years has been in Robotic Space Missions. Beyond providing me with a job, I worry that if we pull back from exploring we may lose sight of the reasons why we explore in the first place.

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