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Copyright © 2006 National Academy of Sciences
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Beginning in the early to mid-1990s, NASA moved toward mission lines that offer scientists the opportunity to lead their own space science missions. Before that, scientists had taken responsibility for science instruments and data analysis on a mission but NASA had managed the projects and developed the spacecraft. As a first step, NASA introduced the Discovery Program and developed it into a competitive, peer-reviewed mission line moving toward planetary science exploration under the principal investigator (PI) mode. Then it transitioned the Explorer Program, the oldest of its competitive mission lines, to the PI-led mode as well. Explorer missions are focused on goals in solar and space physics and in astrophysics; Discovery missions address solar system exploration and the goals of NASA's Origins and Astrobiology programs. The PI-led approach gives scientists more autonomy and freedom in the decision making and management of a developing space mission but at the same time enforces a strict cost cap that constrains competition for the selection and subsequent development of the PI-led mission. In the last 5 years, NASA has introduced two additional PI-led mission lines: Mars Scout providesmission opportunities for the Mars Exploration Program, and New Frontiers invites proposals for targeted solar system exploration.
Thirteen PI-led projects have successfully achieved-or are about to achieve-their mission, and eight others are currently in various stages of development. Two suffered technical failures and one was canceled. In addition, the PI-led mission lines have had to adjust to the changing environment at NASA and in society as a whole. Recently, PI-led mission costs and schedules have increased so much that NASA is considering what lessons might be learned from the different PI-led programs and whether the programs can be improved. To that end, NASA asked the Space Studies Board of the National Research Council to explore the factors contributing to the successes and challenges of PI-led missions. The Committee on Principal-Investigator-Led Missions in the Space Sciences undertook this task with the understanding that such missions are an essential, scientifically productive component within NASA's suite of missions that complements the strategic missions emerging from the decadal survey and roadmap processes. The importance of these small and medium Discovery- and Explorer-class missions was noted in several previous NRC reports; one of them, a 2004 report, stated:
The Explorer program contributes vital elements that are not covered by the mainline ... missions. Explorers fill critical science gaps in areas that are not addressed by strategic missions, they support the rapid implementation of attacks on very focused topics, and they provide for innovation and the use of new approaches that are difficult to incorporate into the long planning cycles needed to get a mission into the strategic mission queues.... The Explorers also provide a particularly substantial means to engage and train science and engineering students in the full life cycle of space research projects. Consequently, a robust ... science program requires a robust Explorer program.
Input from PIs, project managers (PMs), and others led the committee to the following overall finding:
Finding. The space science community believes that the scientific effectiveness of PI-led missions is largely due to the direct involvement of PIs in shaping the decisions and the mission approach to realizing the proposed science concepts.
In this report the committee recommends practices and incentives for improving the overall conduct of PI-led missions. In particular, it recommends adjustments to the selection and implementation processes that aim to strengthen the mission-line programs so that they can continue to provide one of the best science returns per taxpayer dollar for NASA, the scientific community, and the public. The committee's findings and recommendations are presented below and organized into five themes: the selection process, funding profiles, international contributions, program management, and project management.
Information gathered by the committee indicates that the scientific and technical communities invest excessive effort in preparing proposals for PI-led mission programs and that few institutions can or should maintain the infrastructure support (administrative, management, cost estimation) that is required for responding to announcements of opportunity (AOs) for PI-led missions. The review panels involved in evaluating and selecting PI-led mission proposals need to be able to make their decisions based on a more concise set of essential information and in the end to select from proposals that have made a short list and that have been better developed because proposers received funding to prepare mission concept studies. As a result of the large number of detailed proposals submitted in response to AOs, for which NASA conducts separate science and technical merit reviews, the selection process can be inefficient and ineffective. The administrative, management, and cost analysis efforts and the time involved in preparing proposals (for which the chance of success is only 10 percent or less) are unnecessarily exhausting proposers and reviewers, depleting their resources, and resulting in selections that in some cases are destined for cost and schedule problems from the start. NASA may wish to reconsider the basic ideas behind the technical, management, cost (TMC) experiment of 1999, TMC-lite, which tried out a selection process aimed at reducing the information required in a proposal and, thus, the burden on the proposer. NASA may also wish to consider emphasizing certain scientific targets or concept areas in the AOs as a means of reducing the number of proposals submitted-and another means of reducing the burden on proposers. On the other hand, the concept studies that will be required after the provisional selection round of competition need to be more mature in project design definition and TMC planning in order to provide a sound basis for final evaluation and selection.
Proposals and Reviews
Finding. The PI-led mission selection process could be made more efficient and effective, minimizing the burden on the proposer and the reviewer and facilitating the selection of concepts that become more uniformly successful projects.
Recommendation 1. NASA should consider modifying the PI-led mission selection process in the following ways:
Revise the required content of the mission proposals to allow informed selection while minimizing the burden on the proposing and reviewing communities by, for example, reconsidering the TMC-lite approach and eliminating the need for content that restates program requirements or provides detailed descriptions such as schedules that would be better left for postselection concept studies,
Alter the order of the review process by removing low- to medium-ranking science proposals from the competition before the TMC review, and
Allow review panels to further query proposers of the most promising subset of concepts for clarification, as necessary.
Finding. The still-competitive but already funded concept study stage (Phase A) of selected, short-listed PI-led missions is the best stage for the accurate definition of the concept details and cost estimates needed to assist in final selection.
Recommendation 2. NASA should increase the funding for and duration of concept studies (Phase A) to ensure that more accurate information on cost, schedule, and technical readiness is available for final selection of PI-led missions.
Finding. Community-based studies of science opportunities and priorities can be used to focus AO proposals on specific topics of great interest and to guide the choices of selection officials.
Recommendation 3. NASA should make explicit all factors to be considered in the selection of PI-led missions-for example, targets and/or technologies that are especially timely and any factors related to allocating work among institutions and NASA centers.
Proposing Team Experience and Leadership
The committee finds that the importance of team experience and interpersonal and institutional interactions cannot be overstated. The officials who select PI-led missions need to be able to evaluate and duly weigh the teaming aspect of a proposed mission. Along the same lines, the members of a chosen mission, especially the PI and the technical PMs, need to seek out experienced teammates, especially individuals who have worked on other PI-led missions, suborbital projects, core missions, and/or technology development projects such as complex technical systems or instruments. NASA can help to make these experiences available to younger scientists and engineers and also to foster the transfer of information from active mission teams to potential proposers.
Finding. The combined relevant experience of the PI and the PMs in PI-led missions is critical to mission success. Programs can emphasize the importance of experience in their selections and create opportunities for prospective PIs and PMs to gain such experience.
Recommendation 4. NASA should develop PI/PM teams whose combined experience and personal commitment to the proposed implementation plan can be evaluated. NASA should also provide opportunities for scientists and engineers to gain practical spaceflight experience before they become involved in PI-led or core NASA missions. These opportunities could become available as a result of revitalizing some smaller flight programs, such as the sounding rocket and University-class Explorer programs.
Based on its interviews and data-gathering efforts, the committee identified underdeveloped technologies as a major source of cost and schedule problems for PI-led missions. At the same time, the committee found that opportunities-for example, availability of competed funds-for developing technologies for PI-led missions outside the actual mission were limited. Explicit, competed technology development components for each PI-led program (Discovery, New Frontiers, Explorer, Mars Scout) could help ensure that a pipeline of technology developments, from the breadboard to the brassboard levels (closer to flight-ready design), will be available for use on future PI-led missions. Such competed technology development efforts would diminish the likelihood that untested technologies will be used in a PI-led mission.
Finding. As a rule, PI-led missions are too constrained by cost and schedule to comfortably support significant technology development. Those missions that include technology development inevitably have cost and schedule problems. Regular technology development opportunities managed by PI-led programs could lead to a technology pipeline that would help to enable successful mission selection and implementation.
Recommendation 5. NASA should set aside meaningful levels of regular funding in PI-led programs to sponsor relevant, competed technology development efforts. The results from these program-oriented activities should be made openly available on the program library Web site and in articles published in journals or on the World Wide Web.
Project funding profiles-schedules for spending a project's funds for development, implementation, and operations-have been mandated in some AOs, resulting in funding increments that force the PI to follow a development schedule that may be inefficient or even risky. For instance, funds spent early on instrumentation or systems technologies can ensure that the instruments have been tested sufficiently before being integrated onto the spacecraft. The selection process could include an evaluation of the funding profile established by the proposer(s). NASA could consider adjusting a project's cost caps if it cannot secure funds on the schedule proposed for the selected mission.
Finding. Funding profiles represent a special challenge for PI-led missions because they are planned at the mission concept stage with the goals of minimizing costs and achieving schedules. However, like all NASA missions, PI-led missions are subject to the availability of NASA funding, annual NASA budgetary cycles, and agency decisions on funding priorities, all of which can disrupt the planned funding profiles for PI-led missions.
Recommendation 6. NASA and individual mission PIs should mutually agree on a funding profile that will support mission development and execution as efficiently as possible. If NASA must later deviate from that profile, the mission cost cap should be adjusted upward to cover the cost of the inefficiency that results from the change in funding profile (see Recommendation 10).
International contributions have an important impact on the science capabilities of PI-led missions, often providing major pieces of the science instrument payload. Yet these collaborations are viewed as risky because it is difficult to get foreign entities to commit funds before a proposal has been selected and to conduct technical exchanges in the face of International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) requirements. While the increased national emphasis on ITAR, with its sometimes poorly defined restrictions on technology and technical information exchange, has hurt many NASA mission programs, its impact on the highly cost-constrained PI-led missions can be even more damaging, especially as it discourages the involvement of international team members. University and student participation in PI-led missions, ostensibly an advantage of the PI-led approach, can also be compromised because, based on ITAR concerns, NASA in its contracts with universities, private industry, or other entities restricts the access of some individuals to certain technical information.
Finding. International contributions have an important positive impact on the science capabilities of PI-led missions but are faced with an increasingly discouraging environment, in part due to ITAR. In addition, logistical difficulties associated with foreign government budgetary commitments and the timing of proposals and selections persist. The result is both real and perceived barriers to teaming and higher perceived risk for missions including international partners.
Recommendation 7. NASA PI-led-mission program officials should use recent experiences with ITAR to clarify for proposers (in the AO) and for selected projects (e.g., in guidance on writing technical assistance agreements and transferal letters) the appropriate application of ITAR rules and regulations.
Role of the Program Office
The PI-led mission program offices provide support and oversight functions for PI-led projects. Each of the offices, which are staffed by NASA personnel, has a different location, style of operating, and approach to assisting the PI-led projects in its program. The Explorer Program Office at Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) has, through its long history and NASA center infrastructure, provided substantial project assistance. The Discovery Program Office has been relocated on more than one occasion and is in a state of flux, which has led to difficulties for some Discovery missions. A recently merged Discovery and New Frontiers Program Office is in the process of being reestablished at Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), and the relatively new Mars Scout Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is managing its first mission.
Finding. The PI-led program offices can play a critical positive role in the success of PI-led missions if they are appropriately located and staffed, and are able to offer enabling infrastructure for projects and NASA Headquarters from the proposal through the implementation stages.
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