When John Grunsfeld took the podium Wednesday at the NASA Town Hall meeting at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in Austin, Texas, he noted he was just into the sixth day of his new job as NASA’s associate administrator for science, and he had spent three of those days at the Austin conference. That meant that Grunsfeld largely addressed only in broad terms his ideas of the challenges and opportunities the space agency’s science efforts face in the current environment.
“One could say accepting the role of associate administrator at NASA is slightly crazy, and I certainly think it’s higher risk than anything I’ve ever done before,” said the former astronaut who flew on five shuttle missions, including three to service the Hubble Space Telescope. He told the astronomers who packed the ballroom for the hour-long session that “I do feel the full weight and responsibility of carrying an enormous science program to help enable all of you to be great scientists. My job is to help all of you to change the world.”
Grunsfeld indicated he would look beyond the traditional boundaries of NASA’s science programs to leverage capabilities elsewhere in the agency and get the most of out the directorate’s budget. He said he planned to work with Bill Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, “to see what synergies we have.” He cited in particular the potential use of the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket to launch large science missions. (That, of course, assumes funding will be available to build such flagship-class missions down the road, let alone afford the cost to launch them on the SLS.) He also cited potential cost reductions for science missions from using emerging launchers like the SpaceX Falcon 9, and also opportunities to use the International Space Station as a testbed to demonstrate technologies for use on future missions.
Not surprisingly, much of attention devoted to NASA’s space programs is focused on one of its biggest, and most controversial, missions, the James Webb Space Telescope. “The James Webb Space Telescope is one of the primary goals of NASA, and one of its highest priorities,” alongside utilization of the ISS and development of the SLS and Multi Purpose Crew Vehicles, he said. “That means astrophysics is very important to NASA, and we should all be happy about that.”
Grunsfeld and other NASA officials were upbeat about the “replan” of the telescope’s development developed last year. “We’ve got a really good plan going forward,” he said. “I really do feel that we have a good handle on the programmatics and the science system engineering.”
He acknowledged, though, that the program went through a tough experience last year with the replan and the threatened defunding by Congress. “It was real drama,” he said of the effort to win funding for the telescope, thanking AAS members for their efforts the Congress, which he called “a loud and clear voice about basic science research.”
“About a year ago, I didn’t know we would be having this town hall this year,” Eric Smith, deputy program director for JWST, said Monday at a separate town hall meeting devoted to JWST. That was because of the uncertainty about the telescope’s future at that time. “We are here this year, so I’m very optimistic” about the program’s future.
At Wednesday’s town hall, Grunsfeld acknowledged that NASA’s science programs are facing a “constrained” budget environment that will pose a challenge going forward, but cautioned scientists against internecine battles among the community, or between the science and human spaceflight directorates. “We are only as strong as our whole, and if we pit community against community, everybody loses,” he said.
Grunsfeld and the new acting director of the astrophysics directorate, Paul Hertz, offered few specifics about future funding, since that is pending the FY2013 budget request due for release on February 6. Both talked about the importance of “balance” among funding new missions versus existing missions versus research, but didn’t offer additional details. “I’m not planning any big radical changes,” Grunsfeld said.
While unable to take beyond the current fiscal year, Hertz noted at the town hall that astrophysics, when JWST is included (it is now a separate program but still widely perceived as part of astrophysics), accounts for over $1 billion of NASA’s budget. Therefore, he said, the agency and the scientific community need to maximize the value which that significant amount of money can provide. “That’s not small change,” he said. “We have a substantial allotment of federal funding to support the astrophysics program that we do. We have to spend it wisely.”