NASA, I think we need to talk

Posted By Pamela on Jan 9, 2008 | 5 comments

Yesterday’s Michael Griffin talk left me feeling just plain disgruntled. This morning, walking over from Starbucks, the gang of us ran into a NASA related person (whose name I didn’t ask permission to use, so I won’t), and had a really good talk about what went wrong yesterday, what was meant, and a few things regarding NASA’s budget allocations that I’ve talked about before (things my frustrations yesterday erased from my blogging). I’m feeling more gruntled, and I want to share my thoughts.

Michael Griffin is in a really rough spot. I won’t go so far as to say he is a congressional / Bush administration toady, but he is a political appointment. He doesn’t generally get to make policy. Rather, he works to educate congress and the administration, and then does what they tell him to do. And sometimes, what he is told to do, includes having congress micromanage his budget through many billion-dollar earmarks (line items in the national budget that dictate he must spend a certain part of his budget on a specific project some congressman wants to see happen). He is in the position of just trying to get things done that people tell him to do.

And this year a small and powerful subset of the astronomical community, in fear for several of their programs, went to their congressmen and managed to get their pet project (SIMS PlanetQuest) funded. And the funding was pretty much the amount of money needed for everything else. So now Griffin is stuck with SIMS, and has to cut money from, well, everything else. Period.

I firmly believe he was wrong to attack the entire community, publicly, for the actions of a subset of the community.

But all because he had a 2-year-old moment while at the podium doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a problem that he needs input on from my community – the scientific astronomical community – to try and fix. He needs to rearrange millions of dollars to make room for SIMS, and that means cutting programs. The question is, how you decide what to cut?

There are many strategies. You can kill the thing that is “the weakest link,” the programs that have the greatest cost overruns, and that struggle the most to meet deadlines. But sometimes these are the programs that have the greatest scientific potential. You can kill the things that have the highest cost for the least return of data. But sometimes a small amount of data can change everything. You can kill the things that are highest risk – the planetary exploration missions which get lost almost as often as not. But when these missions work, like the Mars Rovers, you have a powerful tool for off world exploration.

So what do you cut?

Here’s my idea, and it is an idea I will write to NASA – just as the scientific community is asked to write decadal surveys to plot our 10 year missions of scientific explorations (the things that suggest how money should be spent based on input from the wider community), perhaps we should also reactivate our last decadal studies working group and ask them to help NASA determine what to cut the same way they helped NASA determine what to build.

I remember sitting in a session at the Lunar and Planetary Sciences Consortium listening to a NASA rep tick through the list of our greatest questions, ticking off the missions NASA had planned to answer those questions. It was day of hope, and happiness, and plans to see what we know radically expand as we expanded our robotic presence in the solar system.

Today is not a day of hope, but like anyone who’s fallen off a horse and hurt themselves (something I’ve done), you have to put the pieces together, go through the therapy, and understand some things just aren’t going to work quite right anymore, but life goes on. Our dreams for the decadal survey are broken, but we need to go through the budgetary therapy and realize there are missions we just can’t do anymore. We don’t have the ability. And we have to move on. I feel that as a community, we have to define through our trusted decadal survey committees, how our scientific lives will go on and move on.

NASA has some plans that we can’t affect, but we can use to our advantage. The heavy lift vehicles they are planning to build to take men to the moon can also be used to launch large planetary exploration platforms. Perhaps our hopes to build a Europa explorer to burrow through the ice and look for life (or at least fluid), can benefit from the added lift abilities. Perhaps, the telescope after James Webb can be larger – a space version of the terrestrial Very Large Telescope. There is potential, and we can dream new dreams that build on that new potential.

We have to move on. Fine. I get that. I don’t have to like it, and you don’t have to call me (and my professional colleagues) names. Let’s work together to build a new day within the budgetary, Bush Administration mandated, congressional omnibus defined box that we have all be forced to live with in.

The greatest problem I see in this non-dialogue – this talking as telling non-love fest we’ve fallen into – is a lack of approaching one another from a position of respect. Fraser Cain put it well: The same tactics that are needed to deal with pseudo-science advocates, where you persuade with science and data and not emotions, must be used to guide this discussion. In trying to convince someone the world is older than 6000 years, I have to start from the point of believing I’m talking to someone with a brain that can look at the data and through education understand that the universe is 13.7+/-2 billion years old, and this is a many fact-based understanding from many sources of data rather than a faith-based number requiring trust in a single source. If you want to change my opinions on how much of NASA’s effort should go to the manned space program, give me the facts, don’t tell me that if I don’t agree I belong at the kid’s table. Through mutual respect, dialogue and change are both possible.

Dialogue with us Michael Griffin. Give us the facts. Be candid without being emotional and name-calling. Tell us specifically what you need from us and work with us to develop a communications channel that we can use to get you what you need. We are here and we want to hear what you have to say.


  1. Dr. Pam:
    I’m still a little confused. You say above that:
    “…managed to get their pet project (SIMS PlanetQuest) funded.”
    Which seems to indicate that money for SIM was provided by Congress.

    You went onto say:
    “And the funding was pretty much the amount of money needed for everything else.”
    Possibly indicating that there was a quid pro quo, and that the funding was illusory.

    “So now Griffin is stuck with SIMS, and has to cut money from, well, everything else.”
    This too seems to say that Griffin has to rob Dr. Peter to pay Dr. Paul…

    Phil blogged this on the same meeting:
    “I suspect that when astronomers advocate to Congress for a mission, it’s in the hopes that Congress will actually increase the budget enough to accommodate it.”
    So he also seems to say that there wasn’t any -REAL- budgetary increase, just a shuffling of budgetary assignments with SIM eating everybody’s lunch.

    No wonder Griffin was POed, he’s been saddled with an unfunded mandate! The bane of everybody’s existance! Congress didn’t put their (our) money where their mouth was yet again.

    For what it’s worth, if -I- was president (or the king of the forrrest! AKA the cowardly lion) I’d double NASAs budget, no questions asked! Sorry Defense Department, you’ll have to cut something. It’s a drop in your gigantic bucket, you’ll survive. I’d double the budgets for the NOAO, NRAO, and NSF as well.
    But I’m not. 🙁

  2. So maybe I’m not as confused as I thought.
    Just bummed.

    January 2, 2008

    Tom Sullivan, “Quiet Rockland”: 1-845-480-1088, “”
    John J. Tormey III, Esq.: 1-212-410-4142


    Rockland County, NY – January 2, 2008: Livid that NASA and the FAA now appear to have acted in concert towards a common goal of concealing vital air traffic safety information from flyers and others on the ground, and in solidarity with a call for further hearings by Chairman of House Science and Technology Committee, Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), suburban New York activist group “Quiet Rockland” today called upon Congress and its investigative arm the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to examine and compel correction of NASA’s just-issued “Air Safety Survey”.

    John J. Tormey III, attorney with “Quiet Rockland”, said: “NASA Administrator Michael Griffin admitted that his agency’s release of the Survey’s data occurred late on New Year’s Eve. He then assured all of us that NASA ‘didn’t deliberately choose to release on the slowest news day of the year’. Griffin and NASA doth protest too much. The NASA survey data was issued in a redacted and deliberately-indecipherable manner. NASA previously sought to withhold the totality of this same data at least once before, when NASA rejected a prior AP FOIA request for it. Of course NASA sought to bury its New Year’s information-release amongst the champagne corks and the dropping ball. Griffin’s suggestion otherwise insults the intelligence of the American public.

    “In response, Quiet Rockland schedules this press release to arrive on what should be one of the busiest back-to-work news days of the new year. 2008 will be the year that we mandate transparency of government. We cannot trust NASA management to communicate fairly or candidly to the American people. It is pathetic that this once-majestic agency of the Apollo era, no longer able to put astronauts on the Moon, and facing difficulty keeping a number of its recently-launched spacecraft intact, now cannot even terrestrially adopt precision or seriousness of purpose beyond that of Captain Anthony Nelson, Major Roger Healy, and Barbara Eden’s ‘Jeannie’. How dare NASA play space games with our safety!

    “The organizational ineptitude of NASA management is particularly threatening in light of yet another recent runway incident between two planes over the Holidays, once again at LAX, involving pilot miscommunications with an air traffic controller. NASA’s ostensible collaboration with its cousin-agency FAA towards concealing safety information from Americans, is confluent with the overall objective of the aero-mercantile complex to over-schedule flights and over-saturate our skies. With focus only upon the almighty buck, these un-checked rogue agencies continue to act at the expense of citizen and environmental safety and health. FAA’s “NY/NJ/PHL Airspace Redesign” is another component of this same harmful aviation special-interest plan. That Redesign must be and will be defeated by citizen outcry such as that voiced by ‘Quiet Rockland’, not to mention the pending federal court litigations and Congressional action against it, taken in the interests of making our skies and our homes safer.

    “NASA and Administrator Michael Griffin indicate that they have no intention to analyze or study, much less further report to the public or press upon the 16,000-plus pages of raw data in the ‘Air Safety Survey’. ‘Quiet Rockland’ therefore asks that Congress and the GAO: (1) audit and investigate NASA’s purposeful mishandling and cheeky and contemptuous New Year’s Eve issuance of purposefully-obfuscated and misleading data; and (2) order NASA to marshal and digest the Survey data and report to Congress, the GAO, and the media on it, in a fully-intelligible writing, within thirty calendar days after the date of this press release. Given NASA’s proclivity to hide from the truth, ‘Quiet Rockland’ suggests Groundhog Day as the most fitting date imaginable for that next report’s issuance.

    “Of the current Survey, Griffin says ‘It’s hard for me… to see any data the traveling public would care about or ought to care about’. ‘Quiet Rockland’ assures Griffin and NASA that anecdotes extracted from the current Survey such as “pilot difficulties in talking to controllers in busy airspace’; air traffic control “capacity inadequate to handle traffic load”; “too many people on the frequency…causing a safety problem”; and perhaps worst of all, “pilots asleep” on the “flight deck”, are most definitely “cared about” by the traveling public – and will indubitably also be “cared about” by the many travelers who comprise Congress, the GAO, and the federal judiciary.”

  4. Griffin might also have been peeved because people went around him to get things passed (e.g. the SIM). The respect thing needs to run both ways. Going around the boss is still a no-no. But you’re right, his tone was not helpful.

  5. Pamela, I think you’ve accidentally increased the uncertainty on the WMAP results 😉


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