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News from the National Academies
Date: March 15, 2000
Contacts: Bob Ludwig, Media Relations Associate
Mark Chesnek, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <news@nas.edu>

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

SCIENTIFIC GOALS SHOULD DRIVE NASA'S
'FASTER, BETTER, CHEAPER' APPROACH TO MISSIONS


WASHINGTON -- NASA should ensure that a broad range of missions - both small and large - are included in its portfolio, and that each is conducted to obtain the maximum scientific benefit, says a new report by the National Academies' National Research Council. The space agency's move toward "faster, better, cheaper" missions has spawned more efficient management techniques and ways to infuse state-of-the-art technology into its projects, but in some cases has compromised important scientific goals such as retrieving data and analyzing results.

"The principles behind so-called 'faster, better, and cheaper' missions - for example, streamlining management and using proven technologies to cut costs - are generally sound," said committee chair Daniel Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "But too often, the heavy emphasis on tight schedules and cost cutting is jeopardizing the scientific objectives of these missions."

NASA's use of small-scale Earth and space science missions, which depend on already proven technologies and require fewer managers and staff, has been dubbed the "faster, better, cheaper" approach. In contrast to traditional missions, each of which may have cost as much as $1 billion and may have taken a decade or more to complete, these small missions typically run from $150 million to $350 million and take three or four years to complete. Because of the savings in time and cost, NASA might be able to launch 10 or more spacecraft a year.

Several recent failures, however - including the Mars Polar Lander, the Mars Climate Observer, and the Wide-Field Infrared Explorer -- have called this strategy into question. Low-budget missions are inherently riskier because they operate with fewer managers and staff, tighter schedules, and less-stringent program reviews, the committee said. And the loss of some spacecraft or the insufficient analyses of data collected on missions have introduced information gaps and impaired scientific investigations.

NASA should ensure that desired scientific outcomes drive mission size selection and planning at all phases of design and execution, the committee said. Smaller and medium-sized missions are lauded by the research community for timely scientific benefit and for maintaining vitality in the research community itself. However, some scientific objectives, such as gathering samples from the martian surface, studying the outer limits of the solar system, and making long-term Earth observations, will call for larger projects. Therefore, a complement of small, medium, and large missions is needed for satisfactory Earth and space science programs.

MAKING SCIENCE A PRIORITY

NASA should consider several factors in addition to budgets and schedules when planning the size and scope of a mission, the committee said. The site to be explored and its physical environment should determine the type of spacecraft and technologies that will be needed. And the types of data and frequency with which they need to be collected should dictate mission scope and duration.

NASA's streamlined approach requires both readily available instruments and new technologies to keep up with more frequent flight opportunities and to deliver measurements and observations that meet high-priority science objectives in cost-effective ways. NASA should continue to fund the development of new spacecraft and instrument technologies, the committee urged. Using proven, commercial technologies can cut costs, but new technologies will continue to be needed to address new science goals. These technologies should be developed for missions of varying complexities and sizes to support a balanced mission portfolio.

FORMING PARTNERSHIPS

Access to space at a reasonable cost is one of the biggest impediments to using a mix of small and large spacecraft, the committee noted. NASA should examine options for cutting the exorbitant costs entailed in launching spacecraft of any size. Currently, national policy requires all U.S. government research projects to be launched on vehicles manufactured in this country. This policy prevents the United States from taking advantage of lower-cost, foreign-launched vehicles, the committee said. Moreover, NASA should encourage international collaboration in all sizes of missions, which can help fill niches in NASA's space science and Earth science programs. The agency also should restore the use of separate, peer-reviewed opportunities for U.S. researchers to provide instruments or enhancements to foreign-led missions. This would allow future, foreign-led missions to be included in NASA's overall science and mission planning efforts.

The appropriate roles for universities, NASA research centers, and industry in carrying out low-budget, small-scale missions also needs to be clarified, the committee said. Such missions can provide more opportunities for university and industry partners to participate in research. And access to high-quality educational opportunities should be improved across all space and Earth science missions.

The study was funded by NASA. The National Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science advice under a congressional charter. A panel roster follows.

Read the full text of ASSESSMENT OF MISSION SIZE TRADE-OFFS FOR EARTH AND SPACE SCIENCE MISSIONS for free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web site or at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).

NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Commission on Physical Science, Mathematics, and Applications
Space Studies Board

COMMITTEE ON THE ASSESSMENT OF MISSION SIZE TRADE-OFFS FOR EARTH AND SPACE SCIENCE MISSIONS

DANIEL N. BAKER (CHAIR)
Director
Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, and
Professor
Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences
University of Colorado
Boulder

FRAN BAGENAL
Associate Chair
Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences
University of Colorado
Boulder

ROBERT L. CAROVILLANO
Professor
Department of Physics
Boston College
Chestnut Hill, Mass.

RICHARD G. KRON
Professor
Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics
University of Chicago; and
Director, Yerkes Observatory; and
Head, Experimental Astrophysics Group
Fermilab National Accelerator Laboratory
Williams Bay, Wis.

GEORGE A. PAULIKAS
Executive Vice President
The Aerospace Corp. (retired)
Los Angeles

R. KEITH RANEY
Principal Professional Staff
Applied Physics Laboratory
Johns Hopkins University
Laurel, Md.

PEDRO L. RUSTAN JR.
Colonel
U.S. Air Force (retired)
Woodbridge, Va.

RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF

PAMELA L. WHITNEY
Study Director