Of Mars and Men

There may be a way to separate science and politics, but there is no way to separate NASA from politics.

Ed Weiler, former NASA chief who currently heads up NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, has been tapped to replace NASA’s Science Mission Directorate Associate Administrator, Alan Stern, who abruptly announced his resignation yesterday.  He spoke at an all hands meeting at GSFC, and was interviewed for Space News by Brian Berger.

On his administrative philosophy and his intent:

You’ve got to balance good engineering with good cost control. That’s my philosophy. I’m not saying that isn’t somebody else’s philosophy, I’m just saying that’s my philosophy. I’m not a stranger to cost problems. But I do believe this: the best way to sell new programs to Congress and the American people is to deliver what you said you would deliver on the highest priority programs that are under development now.

Ahem.  Not a single word about science.  This sounds like an exercise in expectations lowering.

When asked about Alan Stern’s big initiative, a Mars Sample Return mission for the next decade, Weiler hedges.

There are several things I need to understand and [figuring them out] is one of the top priorities on my list. What is the real cost of Mars sample return? Does the community want to pay that cost in terms of the missions that could be done in the interim or not done? So I intend to work with the community — the broadest possible science community — to find out what their real priorities are. But to make those kinds of decisions I want the community to have the full knowledge of what a real mission would cost and how it would impact the budget, etc. and I don’t have any of that information right now. You probably know more than I do.

Eeeewwww.  There are two ways to read this statement.  Either Weiler is very tired and spinning because of the suddenness of these drastic changes at NASA, or he’s trying to tell us that his priorities will be different from Stern’s.  To my cynical ears, he’s throwing Stern, or at least his priorities, under the bus.

When asked if the change had anything to do with the recent budget fight at JPL over the Mars Rovers, Weiler punted.

That’s the kind of question that only Alan Stern, Mike Griffin or Chris Scolese can answer. I don’t travel in those circles.

When asked about the effects of the recent budget fight on JPL, Weiler punted again.

I can’t give you definitive answers. I can give you my philosophy that I tried to follow when I was the AA. Somebody asked me the same exact question at my all-hands. NASA’s got all these budget problems on the science missions. Well, believe it or not, during the six years I was AA we had a lot of budget problems too. As I liked to remind reporters and members of Congress then, these science missions are not the one millionth copy of a Toyota. Everyone is absolutely unique and you can’t predict the cost of these things in pre-phase A when all you are working with is PowerPoint engineering. You don’t really get to the true cost of missions like this until you get to the preliminary design review or even later.

I think the exact translation to English is “blah blah.  Blah!”  If he’s truly not ready to make a statement or have an interview, no body would have faulted him for saying so.  This all happened within the last 36 to 48 hours, after all.  I suspect he knows that, and was, like the politician he must now be again, making a statement.

Sigh.  The plain facts are that NASA and, most particularly, science at NASA, are on hold until at least the next administration.  That’s now apparent.  And even then, all budgets, all schedules and all contracts are sacrosanct, guaranteed and safe, until they are not.  There is no plan at NASA for anything, much less a shuttle replacement for manned space missions, because there is no plan forNASA in the government.  Okay, that last is an opinion.  But I insist it’s well founded.

For presidential candidates, NASA is a campaign promise – a “full employment act” for semi-retired engineers and scientists.  For Congress, it is a place to find money for more pressing pet projects at HHS.  Worse, since 1973 Congress has not understood that it cannot micro-manage NASA and still have a space program worthy of the name.

And in 15 to 20 years, the moon will be divided up between China and India.

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