First Open Sessions of the Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey 2023-2032
Kelsie Krafton American Astronomical Society (AAS)
The first open session of the Decadal Survey on Planetary Science and Astrobiology started at 10:00 am ET on Friday, 2 October, with over 200 meeting attendees. Co-chairs Robin Canup and Philip Christensen began the meeting with presentations from NASA, the study sponsor.
Here are some highlights from NASA presentations.
Science Mission Directorate Expectations for the Decadal Survey
Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate (SMD)
- Zurbuchen spoke to delays in recent projects caused by COVID-19. SMD is still trying to understand the impact of COVID overall.
- Zurbuchen remarked that he’s now seen all the sides of the decadal process. He was vice chair of a previous decadal survey, worked on the Space Studies Board, and now he sees how the guidance put forth by decadal surveys is being implemented at NASA. All that experience has taught him that the decadals are the right process for moving forward. He said there are some loud individuals who advocate for their one project, but decadal surveys are not for that, decadals are the community consensus with scrutiny.
- He advised the steering committee to consider the entire policy landscape and the available funding as they deliberate. Zurbuchen explained that SMD’s decisions are driven by the decadal’s priorities and then adjusted by these constraints. He described the decadal survey as the flight plan, but for a flight in a tactical, changing environment. Zurbuchen told the committee that a good strategy is robust to perturbations at various levels and in various policy contexts. An over-defined, super ambitious decadal can lead to disappointment for all stakeholders and a decadal that lacks inspiration and excitement leaves not enough goals to unite and drive the process to new high ground. He said the appropriate use of ambition is hard to implement but is the critical element.
- Zurbuchen then listed for the committee a set of topics they have to get right with tidbits of advice:
- “What is the status and health of the community and is it set up for success on the next decadal?” NASA wants to do better on inclusion than they have in the past.
- “What is the status and health of the research community with respect to R&A and technology programs?” Planetary has low R&A proposal success rates compared to other divisions, and adding more money isn’t keeping up with the growing size of the community.
- “How does planetary science benefit from the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate?” Have the discussions, but don’t get stuck on a discussion of principles. The International Space Station was not designed with science in mind but has been a big enabler.
- “Planetary Defense”: This is very different than just a science mission. There is important research to be done on Near Earth Objects, but missions will be hard to justify with science alone. Planetary science should take a look at what heliophysics is doing with space weather. The goal is not a stack of research papers but getting data for defense models. The committee must acknowledge this or risk missing the challenges of trying to go forward with any recommendations.
- “Status and Health of PI-led Programs”: Strategic scale missions get more attention, so smaller programs get less support in the long run on the Hill. For a given budget, what does the planetary community want to do to adapt, flying fewer missions?
- “Flagships”: The science community keeps giving guidance to the agencies to not overrun, but we all know and recognize the challenges of these missions. PI-class missions are tremendously valuable but it’s very hard to scale that to flagships. Not all management efforts during recent flagships have worked or had the impact we wanted. Do you want us to take these overall budget caps seriously, before we have a foundation, if it means descopes later on? How do we do it fairly? How does cost matter?
- “Astrobiology”: Lori Glaze is glad that we added astrobiology to the planetary science division. How should we run it to benefit from its cross-cutting nature? We don’t want to deflate research that sits on boundaries.
Planetary Science Division’s Expectations for the Decadal Survey
Lori Glaze, Director of NASA's Science Mission Directorate's Planetary Science Division (PSD)
- The Planetary Science Division’s budget has more than doubled since the start of the last decadal, Visions and Voyages, because they were bold and strategic in their recommendations. The language matters and they provided a program budget that fit expectations as well as a much larger program budget vision that allowed the Division to work on increasing its budget.
- The PSD would like to see guidance on balance, with a range of destinations, with a variety of mission sizes, and with a mix of direct and strategic approaches.
- Glaze specifically called out astrobiology and planetary defense for this decadal. She feels that the PSD is the right place for planetary defense to sit given the field’s knowledge of the objects and experience in deep space exploration.
- She reminded the committee that the report should be organized by big questions even though panels currently setup by destination. She also asked for a list of priorities, as recommendations without priorities would make acting on the recommendations a challenge.
There was then time for questions from committee members. Here is a sampling of those questions and responses:
- Is it possible to increase the cost caps for Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) or New Frontiers?
- Glaze answered that she has heard requests for this, but these are line items in PSD’s budget. Meaning they each have a fixed budget so any changes to cost point would affect cadence. This is a good conversation for this decadal to have.
- SIMPLEx is great addition to the competed mission line, but there is a giant gap between SIMPLEx and Discovery and compelling mission proposals at $100-200 million. Has there been any discussions in SPD about bridging this gap? Some kind of Discovery-lite competed line with less risk and so not as compliant as Discovery?
- Glaze replied that these are the points SPD has been debating. She’s open to a new category or expanding SIMPLEx to fill the gap but needs the decadal to tell SPD what to do. What are the right categories for a balanced program in terms of mission sizes?
- We were asked to prioritize missions from Visions and Voyages that haven’t been confirmed yet. What about those missions that were competitively selected but not yet formally confirmed?
- Glaze responded that the competitively selected missions are important and should be done. Smaller missions that aren’t prescribed by decadal just need to address science recommendations from the decadal.
- Does PSD have any comments on the NEO Surveillance Mission (NEOSM, pronounced "NEAwesome")?
- Glaze answered that NEOSM has been a challenge because it is not prioritized in a decadal, but it has been prioritized by Congress. She thinks the importance of the mission should be recognized, but that it is up to the decadal survey to discuss its priority. She asked the committee to think about planetary defense and the budgets it provides at the top level. In that sense the mission is critical, and it could be an incredible resource for science once the data is collected.
- Is the Next-Generation Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) development on track?
- Glaze explained that a new direction was recently provided for RTG. NASA did a review and concluded that it should reestablish General Purpose Heat Source (GPHS) RTGs to assure RTGs are available at end of decade for any outer planets flagship that may be prioritized by the decadal.
- Where does Mars Ice Mapper live programmatically?
- Glaze and Zurbuchen replied that it lives in PSD in the Mars Exploration Program, but as part of the Moon to Mars initiative. The money comes with Ice Mapper, and that money cannot be used for something else. This is a good opportunity for science and to help the Mars communications network at a low cost point for NASA, thanks to collaborations with other agencies and potentially commercial. It’s still in pre-formulation, but there should be more details soon.
- Can you talk about the reorganization of the Mars program and the vision of PSD for that going forward? What would you like to see for Mars Sample Return as part of decadal deliberations?
- Glaze responded that the Mars Exploration Program’s new structure includes currently operating missions, new missions, Ice Mapper, and science with the returned samples. Right now, SPD is focused on getting the samples back to Earth with nuclear electric propulsion (NEP) and the facility to house those samples. She said the committee shouldn’t waste a priority rank on the sample return because SPD is moving forward on that regardless. She added that the committee can still debate the value of the sample return and possible upscope or descope.
The second open session started after a break for lunch. This session was an informational presentation on “Blindspots: Hidden Biases of Good People” by Mahzarin R. Banaji. This was more of a basic overview and exercise for the committee, and not as much a session on the state of the profession. There was some time for questions at the end:
- How do we make our selection processes more blind?
- Banaji answered that we need to look at who applies in the first place. If your job ads are biased, then your applicant pool will be affected. There is software to fix that. How are you advertising yourself? What is on the website? You need to do active recruiting; don’t assume people will just know to apply. Once you admit people, you need to work on retention. Don’t just assume the work stops at hiring.
- If just being aware of the problem is not enough, if we have some things we can’t change and this is not a blind process, how do we outsmart our minds?
- Banaji replied that awareness matters, and if there is even just one person on a committee who raises these issues, that can make a difference. A session like this won’t take care of it, it’s how we act on this knowledge. Every action we can take, big or small, will all be needed. This is not a simple problem and the solutions are not simple, but every report and conference session makes a difference.
The next open session of the Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey will be on 16 October.