You might think that running the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) at NASA would be the job of a lifetime.
After all, you'd be in command of the space agency's efforts to explore the solar system and universe. You'd have about $5 billion to spend each year and have a big say in deciding whether the next Great Adventure should be to send a probe to Jupiter or to rendezvous with a comet. You'd be right there in the control room when, say, a lander touches down on Mars and relays an "A-OK" back to Earth. And you'd be briefed on breakthrough discoveries before anyone else.
But you'd also have to deal with spending levels dictated by presidents and Congressional committees who don't necessarily view space exploration as a national priority, let alone an imperative. You'd apply "tough love" to projects that are running way over budget, way behind schedule, or both. And you'd have to play Solomon when confronting squabbling scientists who want to advance one discipline's pet projects at the expense of others'.
Welcome to the world of John Mace Grunsfeld, who's about to become the new Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at the agency's Washington headquarters.
This key office has had several occupants in the past decade. Grunsfeld succeeds Ed Weiler, who retired from NASA on September 30th. Weiler had two stints at the space-science helm: he first served from 1998 to 2004, went off to head the agency's Goddard Space Flight Center, then hustled back to Washington after Alan Stern resigned after less than a year on the job. Stern had, in turn, replaced former astronaut Mary Cleave, who had a rocky tenure there.
All that said, Grunsfeld would seem a perfect fit. He got a PhD in astrophysics (specializing in cosmic rays) before becoming an astronaut in 1992. Keenly fond of the Hubble Space Telescope — and why not?! — Grunsfeld made five Space Shuttle trips, including three HST servicing missions, and conducted eight spacewalks. He even chronicled one of his Hubble adventures from orbit for SkyandTelescope.com (click to see installments 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6). A popular and affable space spokesperson, he's been in big demand on the lecture circuit and for public-television specials since leaving the astronaut corps two years ago.
I'm guessing that Job One for Grunsfeld will be to help NASA administrator Charlie Bolden (likewise a former astronaut) fashion the agency's next funding request. In August, President Obama directed federal agencies to cut their fiscal 2013 budgets by at least 5% and to identify cuts of at least 10%. For NASA, this news couldn't come at a worse time. The agency is trying to build momentum (and hardware) for Orion, the multi-purpose crew vehicle (MPCV) designed to replace the now-retired Space Shuttle fleet. And the James Webb Space Telescope's ballooning budget will have ugly, long-term consequences for current and future space-science missions in NASA's pipeline.
Speaking of JWST, regular readers here recall that, back in July, a Congressional committee signaled its intention to cancel the project as part of its shaping of NASA's fiscal 2012 budget. Congress eventually approved $17.8 billion for the space agency, and President Obama signed off on that amount last month even though it's $924 million less than what he'd requested and $648 million less than last year's funding. JWST was spared — it'll get about $530 million in the coming year as it lurches toward its 2018 launch date.
All told, Grunsfeld will get $5.1 billion to work with in fiscal 2012. The good news is that it's $150 million higher than this year's total. The bad news is that JWST needed an emergency infusion of $380 million. Congress was clear on how the space agency should resolve the shortfall: "The agreement accommodates cost growth in the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) by making commensurate reductions in other programs, and institutes several new oversight measures for JWST’s continuing development."
Translation: Grunsfeld will have to hit the ground running when he takes the SMD's reins on January 4th.