Having served at both JPL as a member of the Project Office science staff for the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech where he helped establish the Office of Education and Public Outreach, since May 2005, Dr. Bicay has served as Ames’ acting deputy director for science. Dr. Bicay is in charge of Ames’ research, development, of products, and serving the space community in astrobiology and related areas.
NASA Tech Briefs:Where does the Science Director fit in the process at Ames?
Dr. Michael Bicay: There are a number of directorates at each NASA center, including Ames. We happen to have four technical directorates here, and science is one of the four. We are responsible for about 160 civil servants within the science directorate, working in various research and project support across space, earth, and life sciences.
NTB: What challenges do you address?
Bicay: There are a variety of challenges. I’d say the biggest challenge we face in Ames’ science these days is revectoring ourselves towards NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration. A lot of the work we do out here is relevant, strategically relevant, to the Vision. However, the nature to how we fund ourselves is very unsustainable. About 80% of our revenue, within the science directorate, has historically come from small research and analysis awards managed by the science mission directorate at NASA Headquarters. And it’s a far higher fraction than comparable NASA centers or any other research-oriented institution within the federal government. It’s a very unsustainable mix in today’s climate where the pressure on the R&A program is immense — not only within NASA, but most of the proposals actually come from university-based communities — so there is great pressure on the available resources.
Perhaps more importantly, it’s unsustainable because we need to move to an environment where we have larger programs and projects here at Ames. And so my biggest challenge in the coming years is to start a transformation to move Ames science to a more strategically relevant and more sustainable business base.
There are a couple of different possibilities here. One that comes to mind immediately is lunar science and technology development. I believe with our expertise in planetary science — the whole gamut of planetary sciences, including geophysics, meteorology, the study of planetary rings, and a variety of other subsets — that we are well-positioned to contribute to the agency’s interest in the Moon and hopefully beyond that to Mars. And to the extent that NASA spends 10 or 15 years going back to the Moon, I believe Ames as a lot to offer, both in fleshing out the science that can be enabled by a return to the Moon, and also participating in some of the technology developments we need to sustain long-duration sorties on the lunar surface, and hopefully, one day on Mars.
We’re finding more and more planetary bodies, even small ones, have rings have rings around them. It’s a consequence of celestial mechanics. And that leads me to another area where I think Ames can play an enhanced role, and that’s the whole area of extrasolar planet detection, of finding planets outside our solar system. We’re finding a lot of them; we know of about 200 now, although we have never actually seen any of these planets directly. Of course, the Holy Grail of planet finding is to image and characterize the atmospheres, if they have them, of planets around nearby stars.
Now, NASA has long had an ambitious, and one might add expensive, program to attack this problem, and it involved a series of billion dollar-plus missions over the next 10 to 15 years. One of the consequences of the revectoring of the agency toward the Vision for Space Exploration, and a relative decreased rate of growth in the science budget, is that the agency has essentially hit the “reset” button on its extrasolar planet program. There is only one mission that is firmly in the queue right now, and that is a mission based here at Ames, the Keplar Planet Finding mission that launches in late 2008. The rest of the program involving missions like SIM and two versions of the TPF — Terrestrial Planet Finder — have essentially been put either on the backburner or moved out in time so far as to not be “real” missions by some definition at this point.
And so, what the agency has come to conclude is that they cannot afford all of these missions. By hitting a reset button, I think they are they are providing the community an opportunity to re-examine the way we find planets around nearby stars, and hopefully use technology developments and an additional 15 years of “thinking time” (since these missions were proposed in the late 1980s and early 90s) to try to bring to bear some innovative techniques on finding extrasolar planets, and hopefully do it for less than a billion dollars per mission.
I think Ames is well positioned to contribute to this discussion. And it is a community-wide effort: JPL will certainly will be participating, Goddard, and many people throughout the academic community. The goal here is to reassess the best way to utilize our scarce resources to continue this endeavor. This, of course, leads to innovation, such as landing probes on Mars with airbags rather than a thruster-controlled touchdown. The standard Martian landing has been with airbags, but the upcoming missions, including the Mars Science Lab that launches in 2009, are so large that airbags are no longer a viable option, so we have to come up with yet another innovative landing technique. The gestation period for any of these missions tends to stretch out for 10, 15, 20, even 25 years. It’s very easy to become trapped into a certain view of how to do a certain mission. And as time evolves, you get younger people coming in with newer ideas, you have technology developments that come to bear, and there is nothing like a budget crunch to force people to think outside the box. It sounds cliché, but it happens all the time within NASA. We’re in one of those environments now where science still comprises a healthy component of the agency’s budget, but the predicted rate of growth of that budget is less than what was anticipated as recently as a year ago. And so, if we want to pursue all of the things we were hoping to do in space science, we have two options: find more creative, innovative, cheaper ways of doing things, or we’re going to have to do fewer of the things we wanted to do.
A third area where I think the agency will become increasingly interested in, motivated in part by a Congressional authorization bill passed a year ago, is the whole subject of what are called Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) or asteroids. And we keep reading every now and then about an asteroid that’s been detected, and astronomers do its orbital mechanics analysis and come up with a probability of if it may or may not hit the Earth in some distant year. We’re finding more and more of those things. Congress has requested that NASA build up a more enhanced capability in detecting, characterizing, and developing a mitigation strategy for asteroids. Again, given Ames’s expertise in a wide variety of planetary sciences, I believe Ames is well positioned to be a major contributor to this undertaking.
There are many ways of NEO mitigation; one possible way is blasting these things. But before you blast something, you want to know of what it is made and what its density is. If you don’t, you could make the problem worse, and so it is very important we started characterizing the geophysical properties of asteroids before we start developing any mitigation schemes.
NTB: What commercial applications could come from Ames’ projects?
Bicay: Ames as has long had substantial IT expertise. We have a partner nearby, Google, who is now working with Ames in some joint collaborative R&A efforts. The first real manifestation of the memorandum of understanding that Ames signed with Google some time in the past year is an agreement by Google to actually support a handful of up to 10 people here at Ames to work on an enhancement of Google Earth with an eye towards incorporating lunar imagery, and so there will be a “Google Moon” eventually. I’m sure it’s not too hard to predict that Google wants to do the same thing for Mars and perhaps other planetary surfaces also. That’s just one manifestation of mating the expertise we have here at Ames with the local venture capital firms and the high technology of Silicon Valley towards a host of commercial applications.
Another area where the commercial world is increasingly interested in collaborating with us is the life sciences. This is a discipline or an area of science that’s been relatively de-emphasized, or at least aspects of it, by the agency over the last couple of years. But there are some important capabilities we have here in-house that are increasingly of interest to local companies in Silicon Valley. A small example: we have an experiment flying in space now on a commercial payload that does a genetic assay of samples that have been sent into space. It performs a gene expression experiment to help characterize variations in the genetic properties as a function of low gravity and high radiation. Eventually, when NASA becomes serious about long-duration outposts on the Moon or on Mars, the agency will have to take things like high radiation doses and weightlessness much more seriously than they have had to for low Earth-orbit flights and for the Apollo excursions on the Moon. There is suggestive evidence that the combination of low gravity and high radiation over extending periods of time have debilitating effects on the human system, and most of the research in this area, ironically, has been done overseas by the Russians. And as NASA points to longer-duration stays in outer space, I think the agency will be increasingly interested in understanding these effects and how to remediate them.
NTB: What are the goals for Ames?
Bicay: The primary goal is to take this world-class expertise that we have in earth, space and life sciences and move it from a pure research-oriented mode to a more sustainable model where our scientists do basic research part of the time, and applied research the rest of the time — with that applied research often including participation in missions and programs. What we need to do here, quite frankly, is to alter the perception that Ames science has not been as relevant as it needs to be. In fact, there are some who characterize us as the “University of Ames.” We have to demonstrate that we have the expertise and the interest in contributing to NASA’s vision, and find substantive ways of engaging our scientists in strategically relevant and meaningful activities.
Under Peter Worden, the idea is to grab the agency and shake it into a new way of thinking. In a nutshell, it is to implement and execute a program of small satellites. It’s a demonstration that we can do good science and technology demonstrations for far less money than the agency might have spent in the past. We, the agency, have gotten into a world in which there are very few NASA centers that can build spacecraft and can manage flight programs. We have gotten ourselves into a world where there are very few aerospace companies and industries that are even able to bid on NASA projects. One of the consequences is that the price for doing any one thing is becoming prohibitively expensive. We’re not talking about a sole-source kind of world, but it is getting close. You don’t see the competition you see in a true, free-market economy.
What Ames and Dr. Worden want to do is hit the “reset” button and demonstrate that we can do “bang-bang science” for far less money than NASA as typically spent on these projects. A firm example of this is the LCROSS mission, and this is a roughly 80-million-dollar piggyback mission. Ames is leading this effort, and we will be hitching a ride on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which launches in late 2008. We will have an innovative experiment where we crash — intentionally crash — a vehicle into the lunar surface, hopefully in a darkened lunar crater where there may, or may not, be solid lunar ice. Then we have an accompanying shepherding spacecraft that will fly through the resulting impact plume of material, which may reach up 100 km, and should provide definitive evidence to whether there is or is not water in the deep, darkened, shadowed craters near the lunar poles.
It’s a risky experiment, but with these low cost missions, the agency has to be willing to accept more risk, and that is something it has not done easily in the past. The bottom line is innovation: everything that NASA does, at least in space science, is a custom hot-rod. And we have seen very few economies of scale, and we would like to try to find a new way of doing business such that we could launch small spacecraft more frequently, perhaps every six months; maybe find some economies of scale, such as a common spacecraft bus, and find a way to drive down the cost of doing these missions. Much of the cost of these missions not only flows from the very few vendors, but from the heavy management oversight. If you demand a program to be 99.9% successful, then you must by definition build in extensive testing and extensive oversight — and those costs multiply. What we are trying to do is convince the agency and community to accept a slightly lower success rate — I don’t know what the number would be, maybe 90%, maybe 95% — in exchange for doing something that is many factors cheaper than it otherwise would be. I think the future of Ames is heavily wrapped up in Dr. Worden’s vision for creating a viable small satellite capability.