NASA

Stern resigns

NASA officially announced this morning that Alan Stern, the associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, was resigning. He will be replaced on an intermin basis, at least, by Ed Weiler, the director of NASA Goddard. Stern will leave in “a few weeks”, Stern announced in an email memo cited by Space News/SPACE.com.

“While I deeply regret his decision to leave NASA, I understand his reasons for doing so,” administrator Mike Griffin said in the official statement. However, the statement doesn’t explain what those reasons are. There has been speculation (based on some emails and phone calls I received this morning) that this is linked to the recent kerfuffle over a plan, since overruled, to cut the Mars Exploration Rovers program budget. The timing, at the very least, is suspect, but it could also be a coincidence.

30 comments to Stern resigns

  • This is way too bad. While I don’t disagree with Anonymous’ problems with the way he was hired, I think in the end he has done an excellent job. And, if he quit over the MER budgets, well good for him. . . .

    – Donald

  • realist

    I would say the timing is way too close for it to be coincidental. Stern has a cost-conscious management style, so what better way to make that broadly known that chopping away at the Mars rovers? I think he’s deliberately heading for the corporate sphere, where his penny-pinching reputation will be more appreciated (and feared).

  • anonymous.space

    “While I don’t disagree with Anonymous’ problems with the way he was hired”

    Just to be clear, my issue was not the way in which Stern was hired, but his past practices. The science AA is in charge of many, large, community-based processes about mission, instrument, and grant decisions and awards, and must have a lot of integrity in his management and oversight of these processes. For his own research activities and missions, Stern has a history of circumventing these processes, sometimes in very big ways, and therefore lacked the credibility necessary to be NASA’s science AA, at least in my eyes.

    Stern’s science priorities also tend to go against the VSE and community decadals. His first and only budget request emphasized missions like a solar probe and a lunar atmosphere satellite at the expense of the Mars program or actual lunar development missions consistent with the decadals and the VSE.

    “I think in the end he has done an excellent job”

    Setting aside issues of decision process integrity and credibility, Stern is a passable manager and was able to reverse some of the smaller problems in NASA’s science portfolio — massive cuts in astrobiology and other R&A program and small flight opportunities in the Explorer and suborbital programs.

    That said, Stern did not succeed in repairing the biggest damage done to the highest priority science programs during Griffin’s tenure, and may have actually worsened some situations. Between procurement delays for the 2011 mission and a disconnect between Stern’s schedule for MSR and its technology budget, the Mars program is arguably in disarray. Stern also cut Mars to restore an outer moons mission, but he still didn’t come up with enough funding to actually pursue an outer moons mission. And aside from Kepler, there is still no exoplanet program to speak of, and technology investments to enable future missions (e.g., New Millennium) has taken another hit under Stern. (Of course, one could also argue that Stern didn’t have enough time at the helm to tackle these big problems, either.)

    I’m very glad to see Weiler back at the helm, even on an interim basis. My two bit opinion is that Weiler has the credibility, science priorities, and demonstrated ability to fix big problems that Stern lacked. Whether he’ll be given enough time to do so (or wants to do so) remains to be seen.

    All my 2 cents… your mileage may vary… FWIW…

  • Aren’t you asking Stern to do things a bit beyond his remit? Like take money from other divisions? I think he did a good job of fixing scientists’ greatest complaints within the budget he had, which undoubtedly the job he was hired to do. As you know, the place I would really fault Stern is replacing the smaller Mars programs with an unaffordable sample return and I hope that decision now gets reversed.

    – Donald

  • NY

    Maybe Stern sent the note to cut the Rovers’ budget just to make it public how tightly constrained science is at NASA. Unfortunately the strategy backfired.
    $4 million — aren’t we spending that much to give federal employees new ID badges?

  • SpaceMan

    NY – “…$4 million — aren’t we spending that much to give federal employees new ID badges?”

    Not to mention the minutes it takes to burn through that amount in Iraq where several complete space programs are dumped into the sand every month.

    Pay attention to the complete picture.

  • Kevin Parkin

    Losing Stern is a bitter blow from where I’m sitting.

    He was very much more capable than his predecessor. He understood that the vast majority of every science dollar is squandered and was methodically fixing it.

    What’s to stop SMD taking a nosedive back into its old ways now?

    And now Mather is exiting HQ also. That

  • Kevin Parkin

    That’s a large exodus of talent from HQ. Careless it appears from here.

  • GuessWho

    “That said, Stern did not succeed in repairing the biggest damage done to the highest priority science programs during Griffin’s tenure, and may have actually worsened some situations. Between procurement delays for the 2011 mission and a disconnect between Stern’s schedule for MSR and its technology budget, the Mars program is arguably in disarray.”

    While I am not a big fan of Alan Stern, laying the 2011 Mars Scout mission delay at his feet is unfair. The delay was caused by a organizational conflict of interest on the part of one of NASA’s reviewers and the Great Escape proposal. When Alan assumed the role of AA at SMD, he had to recuse himself from the Mars Scout selection given his prior role as PI on GE. Assuming he did indeed stay out of the process and did not try to influence the decision behind the scenes (and there is nothing that I have seen to suggest otherwise), he cannot be blamed for an OCI event that occurred very late in the proposal review process. Given already tight launch schedules had the selection process remained on track, forming a new review panel and starting from scratch so that the OCI taint would be completely removed made the prospect of meeting the 2011 launch window highly unlikely. Secondly, Alan inherited a dysfunctional MSL program. It was in trouble form a cost and schedule standpoint before Stern came on-board. His repeated rebuffs of JPL requests for additional funding to cover cost overruns are well known internally within the Mars science community (and no I can’t provide sources as this would violate personal confidences, you will have to take it on faith) and can be inferred from public statements by Stern about MSL’s efforts to reduce scope to meet cost caps. The fact that MSL & JPL still can’t get the job done, even with descopes, within their cost caps and are likely to miss the 2009 launch window shows they still didn’t fully get the message that SMD was operating in a new mode. My take on the whole affair is that Stern told JPL to solve their MSL cost problem’s on their own or he would find other JPL sources of funds within the SMD environ and MER became the target. JPL howled and Griffen through Alan under the train. If so, then cost overruns on science missions will once again become SOP as JPL will have demonstrated that doing so has no penalty what-so-ever. My $0.02.

  • SpaceMan

    “…JPL howled and Griffen through Alan under the train…” – GuessWho

    This evening during the STS-123 post landing press conference Griffin stated (for what it is worth) that the MER letter to JPL went out w/o being vetted at HQ & he changed the decision because of that. I assume Stern then resigned.

    There is plenty of money for NASA to do what needs to be done. It is just that most of it is being tossed into the wind by other parts of the federal government (DoD, Homeland Security etc). Of course a rational move would be to have a real currency based on reality instead of delusional Laffer & Randian fantasies (gold and silver are, for example, part of said delusions).

    Time to grow up !

  • GuessWho

    “This evening during the STS-123 post landing press conference Griffin stated (for what it is worth) that the MER letter to JPL went out w/o being vetted at HQ & he changed the decision because of that.”

    Either Stern is in charge of SMD or he is not. A good manager would trust the people he has put in charge to make sound decisions as they are more likely to be aware of all of the issues involved with that decision. If everything has to be vetted by MG, then his AA’s are impotent and of no use. This is more an indication of MG’s lack of management skills than Stern’s approach to JPL.

  • anonymous.space

    “Aren’t you asking Stern to do things a bit beyond his remit? Like take money from other divisions?”

    Yes and no. I agree that without restoring a good portion of the budget that Griffin cut from science early in his tenure, there’s only so much that Stern or any AA could do.

    That said, with the resources he had, Stern directed dollars into activities that are not high priorities in the VSE and/or decadals (lunar atmosphere satellite, solar probe, etc.) while cutting priority programs (Mars) and trying to restart other priorities with inadequate funding (outer moons). An AA should clearly focus resources on priorities and not make half-funded attempts at those priorities.

    “As you know, the place I would really fault Stern is replacing the smaller Mars programs with an unaffordable sample return and I hope that decision now gets reversed.”

    The problem isn’t replacing other Mars missions with sample return. The problem is that Stern was restarting sample return with inadequate resources, which likely would have led to a failed mission and/or poor samples. The promise of sample return is great, but it will require sacrifice and the samples returned need to be worth the sacrifice.

    The incoming AA has grappled with this issue before and demonstrates a more nuanced understanding of the issue. See the third Q&A in this interview (add http://www.):

    space.com/news/080326-weiler-interview.html

    FWIW…

  • anonymous.space

    “While I am not a big fan of Alan Stern, laying the 2011 Mars Scout mission delay at his feet is unfair.”

    Honestly, I don’t know about that. I’ve heard that there were options to remedy the selection snafu that did not require a complete restart, could have kept the next scout mission on track for a 2011 launch, and that the situation was taken advantage of for budgetary reasons, i.e., to free up some near-term funds by slipping the next scout to 2013. But I can’t confirm in documentation what I’ve been told, so who knows.

    “Secondly, Alan inherited a dysfunctional MSL program.”

    I didn’t criticize Stern for that. His cost-control efforts on MSL are laudable. But his planning for the next decade of Mars mission, especially with regard to MSR early technology investment and foreign cost-sharing, was not realistic.

    “Either Stern is in charge of SMD or he is not.”

    In Griffin’s defense, the NASA Administrator has the right and duty to review the decisions of his managers and alter them when they’re wrong. But that can be taken too far, and whether Whether Griffin was doing too much of it with Stern, we’ll probably never know.

    FWIW…

  • Al Fansome

    GUESSWHO: Either Stern is in charge of SMD or he is not.

    ANONYMOUS: In Griffin’s defense, the NASA Administrator has the right and duty to review the decisions of his managers and alter them when they’re wrong. But that can be taken too far, and whether Whether Griffin was doing too much of it with Stern, we’ll probably never know.

    This is the crux of the issue, and the truth lies somewhere in between.

    I am betting that Stern felt that Griffin was micro-managing him, and that he could not do his job if he had to send every MINOR decision up to Griffin for sign-off.

    There is a LINE where decisions below a certain level should not be sent to the boss for sign-off. It is part of boss’s job (as a manager) to clearly delineate where that line lies. This line is situationally dependent.

    A $4M decision for the operating details of a science mission is a minor decision, in my opinion, for the NASA Administrator. It should have been made at the AA/SMD level. Griffin can not have all the information that Stern has, nor can he know what Stern has in mind (he may well have been using this as part of a comprehensive strategy to force JPL to become more cost conscious & responsible for their cost problems … which is much more strategic in importance than this $4M issue). If so, Griffin totally undercut this strategy.

    Griffin also destroys Stern’s credibility as a manager by not allowing him to make decisions of this scope. Every little decision Stern makes will be subject to appeal to the Emperor.

    I actually was impressed by Stern. I thought he was one of Griffin’s best choices as a mission director, as he demonstrated an understanding of management and strategic approach to cost control. Se la vi.

    - Al

    “Management is not rocket science, which is why rocket scientists do not understand management.”

  • spazimodo

    Well, I would be willing to bet $500 that anonymous.space is a JPL’r. Weiler is a complete moron who’s only redeeming quality to anyone, including JPL, is a fixation on Mars. Not one single project at GSFC has come in on time or on budget during his tenure there.

    Stern leaving is a bitter blow to the overall science community as NASA space science is more than Mars and Stern understood this. The enter MER debacle was a ploy by JPL to force NASA’s hands to fork over more money for their own mistakes and overruns. Lest anyone forget, those two cute little rovers where originally a $400M dollar mission that turned into a $900M dollar mission.

    With NASA’s human spaceflight program nearing collapse with the problems with their launch vehicles one can only hope that JPL will be hemmed in budget wise as well.

  • anonymous.space

    “A $4M decision for the operating details of a science mission is a minor decision, in my opinion, for the NASA Administrator.”

    I’d agree 95% of the time. But budget cuts to MERS operations fall into the 5% category of small but highly visible budget moves that the Administrator should be made aware of before they’re executed.

    I don’t know if Stern gave Griffin fair warning that he was about to take up this challenge, or how much Griffin and Stern have been butting heads on other issues — Stern’s resignation may be very justified.

    But on the specific issue of cuts to the MERS operations budget, if I was the Administrator, I’d want to know when one of my AAs was about to take on such a highly visible fight for only a few million bucks before he/she entered the ring. The Administrator might advise the AA that the fight is not worth it or be in a better position to better back them up.

    FWIW…

  • anonymous.space

    “Well, I would be willing to bet $500 that anonymous.space is a JPL’r.”

    Well, that would be a bet that you’d lose.

    “Weiler is a complete moron”

    There’s no need to resort to namecalling. No one else has done so in this thread.

    “who’s only redeeming quality to anyone, including JPL, is a fixation on Mars.”

    Weiler’s even-handed comments with regards to multiple questions about the Mars program yesterday indicates otherwise (add http://www.):

    space.com/news/080326-weiler-interview.html

    Weiler also comes from a astrophysics background (Hubble, Origins, etc.). He’s not even a planetary scientist, forget Mars scientist.

    FWIW…

  • Kevin Parkin

    So how will Weiler protect small missions from the cost overruns of large ones? That last earmark of JPL’s wiped out another small science mission – they must be rubbing their hands in glee.

  • anonymous.space

    “So how will Weiler protect small missions from the cost overruns of large ones?”

    Well, there’s four options:

    1) Push back on the overrun, just as Stern did with MSL. Weiler is no shrinking violet when it comes to fighting overruns and other development issues and cancelled five missions during his prior tenure as AA. See his answer to the seventh question in yesterday’s interview for which there are links earlier in this thread.

    2) Look elsewhere (besides small missions) in SMD for offsets. Missions coming off development or ending operations can open up funding wedges, new mission developments can be deferred, there’s always grants and technology (but an option of last resort), etc.

    3) Ask for more money. Griffin is unlikely to grant such a request for SMD, but his successor may be in such a position, especially if the next White House defers on Constellation’s human lunar elements. (Although from experience, Weiler prefers fixing problems in-house and allocating new money to new activities.)

    4) Some combination of the above.

    I’d also add that holding the purse-strings too tightly can be detrimental to mission success. As Weiler notes in his interview, we lost two Mars missions in the late 90s when costs were constrained and capped too harshly. Management is a question of priorities and balance, not formulas and absolutes.

    FWIW…

  • [...] it’s been mentioned in the comments in the earlier post on the subject, it’s worth a post itself. Space News scored the first interview with Ed Weiler, the director [...]

  • Kevin Parkin

    I would also add:

    5) Go as you pay. If you cannot fit within budget, you go slower.

    To return to an earlier point, the decadal surveys highlight science needs related to phobos and deimos as well as the internal structure of small solar system bodies, and the transport of volatiles on the moon. To plan any kind of optical facility on the moon, one also needs to understand the lunar dust atmosphere.

    Finally, China and India have lunar orbiters right now, we have nothing. These VSE-related missions do have and will have foreign competition – steamboat landers and big mission mentality/politics are failing and will continue to fail. With HQ politics as they are, NASA’s smaller more dynamic enterprises have been attacked and held back, so VSE will be carried out by foreign countries.

  • Kevin Parkin

    Make that Europe, China, India and Japan have lunar orbiters right now.

  • space%plorer

    “China and India have lunar orbiters right now, we have nothing… Make that Europe, China, India and Japan have lunar orbiters right now.”

    Err… no… Japan and China have lunar orbiters ‘right now’. India has yet to launch (probably this year). Europe’s SMART-1 was destroyed on impact in 2006. The United States will launch the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and LCROSS impactor by end of 2008.

  • spazimodo

    1) Push back on the overrun, just as Stern did with MSL. Weiler is no shrinking violet when it comes to fighting overruns and other development issues and cancelled five missions during his prior tenure as AA. See his answer to the seventh question in yesterday’s interview for which there are links earlier in this thread.

    Yea just like Weiler pushed back on the overruns on LRO. Went whining to Mikulski and Griffin backed down.

  • anonymous.space

    “Yea just like Weiler pushed back on the overruns on LRO.”

    ESMD decisions are largely responsible for the complexity, large launcher, and costs of LRO — decisions that I’ve heard Weiler (and many others) actually tried, but failed, to push back on.

    “Went whining to Mikulski and Griffin backed down.”

    Evidence?

    If Weiler has a history of making end-runs around the NASA Administrator, why would Griffin bring Weiler back as AA?

    It’s fine if one wants to be a Stern fan. He did have redeeming qualities as AA. But we should defend Stern. Making up stuff about the new AA won’t polish Stern’s record.

    FWIW…

  • spazimodo

    If Weiler has a history of making end-runs around the NASA Administrator, why would Griffin bring Weiler back as AA?

    How about, no one else will take the job and Weiler is hoping that after Griffin is tossed that he will walk into the job, at least as interim? The last guy sold his home, moved to DC, and after less than a year could not deal with it anymore. Yea baby, lot of folks want to follow that up.

    For evidence all you have to look at is the LRO budget and the NASA submittals every year for increased spending to cover the overruns. Way over what it was supposed to be but never a peep from anyone, including Stern. You know how high the GSFC overhead rates are. NASA administrators, as far back as the early Goldin era figured out that to cross Babs was a bad idea.

    If you heard that then you heard that GSFC put a team together that had never done a spacecraft development before, chose a group of experiments from ESMD that does little to actually advance lunar science, and will probably slip the launch beyond October for yet another delay.

  • space%plorer

    “GSFC put a team together that had never done a spacecraft development before…”

    Evidence? At minimum, LRO team were/are expereinced SMEX and Explorers spacecraft developers; and given GSFC’s matrix management, they pull experienced talent from the various engineering and flight directorates. So who exactly had never done spacecraft development before?

    “chose a group of experiments from ESMD that does little to actually advance lunar science,”

    Remember, when LRO was started, it was an SMD managed mission; and the instrument selection process was managed by SMD prior to LRO being transferred to ESMD. While the instruments selected were primarily to address ESMD “exploration” objectives (e.g., finding safe landing sites, looking for potential water ice for ISRU), they all are dual-use for “science” purposes and have significant science value. (see http://lro.larc.nasa.gov/index.html for history of LRO instrument aquisition).

    But for argument’s sake, as evidence of LRO science value, SMD recently initiated a new lunar research program (called LASER) to fund research using the data from LRO (as well as other missions). In addition, SMD is expected to take over LRO after its primary mission phase (1 year) and operate it in an extended mission mode. I would not expect SMD would spend its precious research dollars (remember, these initiatives were generated during the Stern era) on data that “does little to actually advance lunar science.”

  • I think the LRO is outrageously expensive (to put it in perspective, it costs almost half the anticipated incremental cost of a human mission using the Ares infrastructure, which itself is outrageously expensive), duplicative of other missions, and not really necessary for the establishment of a lunar base. However, I do think it is the kind of dual-use mission we should be doing a lot more of, only on a smaller scale. In the process of gaining resource maps, you also get science, in the same way that, say, oil exploration produces a lot of knowledge about the subsurface of the deep sea.

    Riding science on missions flown for other purposes is probably the cheapest way there is to do science. An example which I just read about in Spaceflight is the way the Air Force’s Mid-Course Space Experiment was used to conduct a survey of the galactic plane. Still another is the effort to ride Earth observation experiments on the next generation Iridium satellites.

    If the LRO ends up not advancing science, it is because scientists are not looking at the data, not because the data isn’t being generated.

    – Donald

  • Dennis Wingo

    I do look forward to the LRO maps but I have to agree with others here who indicate that the mission cost far too much, damn near half what the last Shuttle orbiter cost. GSFC would not know cost control if it hit them in the face. For that price of that mission we could have had three orbiters and a couple of rovers. Our Lunar Resource Mapper mission was $151M dollars and had almost as much science as LRO plus got us a high resolution lunar gravity map.

    To me the most interesting experiment was put on late, which is the radar, which is a companion to the Spudis radar on the Indian mission. Maybe both of them working together can map the water concentrations.

    We must have in situ sampling at both the poles as well, long before we land, in order to take the best advantage of any possible ISRU processes. To me the biggest failing of NASA is that ISRU has been largely excised from the program, which is in the end, the reason for going.

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