By Theresa Foley|May 2023
Nicola Fox, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate
Nicola Fox characterizes her recent promotion to head of the Science Mission Directorate like being “dropped in at the deep end.” She began overseeing NASA’s wide-ranging portfolio of robotic science missions that includes Earth-observing satellites and planetary spacecraft days before the Biden administration sent its fiscal 2024 budget request to Congress. The $27.2 billion request includes a record $8.2 billion for the five divisions that Fox oversees, but she warns that “tough decisions” may be ahead if Congress pushes for budget cuts or if missions grow beyond their projected costs. Such a scenario is already playing out with construction of the Psyche asteroid probe, whose yearlong delay prompted NASA to push back the launch of a planned Venus probe to free up funds. In addition to her portfolio of robotic missions, Fox regularly meets with her colleagues in NASA’s human spaceflight directorates about the science that will be done on the lunar surface under the Artemis moon program. I spoke to her in mid-April about these and more of the challenges ahead. Here is our video conversation, condensed and lightly edited.
Q: How are you familiarizing yourself with all the challenges ahead?
A: It’s the best job on and off the planet, so I’m over the moon and the sun and everything else to have the job. It’s probably one of the most important science jobs in the world, looking after the science for NASA. We have over 100 missions in the Science Mission Directorate portfolio in different stages. We have 70 in operation and coming up on 50 that are in some form of build or planning or design phase. I got dropped in at the deep end by coming on board right as the president’s budget request was released, and so I didn’t take any time, shall we say, familiarizing myself with the challenges, because they landed on my desk — balancing what we have in the president’s budget request with the priorities that are in the different decadal surveys, with community input with our academy studies and with agency priorities. There’s obviously challenges because everybody wants to do more all the time. We’re an agency that kind of pushes the boundaries, and you do have to realize that you must be able to do that within the constraints that you’re given.
Q: The fiscal 2024 request of $8.2 billion was a record for your directorate. How do you go about balancing robotic science and astronaut science?
A: Science is the first priority for the moon to Mars program. The Science Mission Directorate really does lead the science piece of the moon to Mars and the Artemis program. And we’ve been intimately involved with all of the planning for Artemis since the very beginning, as in taking advantage of our Commercial Lunar Payload Services, where we’re partnering with industry to put NASA science payloads on the lunar surface or in orbit around the moon; we’re looking at what we can put on the Gateway; we’re looking at what science can be done inside the Orion capsule. So it’s really taking advantage of all of that. We are looking at Mars Sample Return as kind of almost the precursor to a crewed mission to Mars: What is the science? What are the soils on Mars made out of? What history can we find in those samples? And then how would that guide the upcoming, although futuristic, crewed Mars missions? There’s a lot that we can do with our robotic missions. Obviously, we can send them into areas where we can’t send people. But there are areas where humans can survive, and there’s a lot that can be done with a person that you can’t necessarily do with a robot. Even with something as sophisticated as the Perseverance rover, it can’t make an in-the-moment decision, whereas the person can. So I really think that there’s just a tremendous opportunity for us to be able to take advantage of doing more small space, more science, with all of these new opportunities that are coming.
Q: Regarding the delay of the Psyche asteroid orbiter last year, what lessons did you learn from the Thomas Young independent review board report?
A: It wasn’t really so much of a challenge with the mission itself. It was really more identified as a broader issue across JPL, where they just didn’t have enough staffing.
Fox’s predecessor, Thomas Zurbuchen, convened the Psyche Independent Review Board in mid-2022 when NASA determined that the spacecraft would not be ready for launch in October as planned. In its final report, the IRB concluded that the Jet Propulsion Laboratory “was not able to staff the Psyche Project with either the number of personnel needed or individuals with the proper experience levels” because the laboratory “has an unprecedented workload.” — TF
We’re looking at retention, people leaving JPL and going to other companies, and people not being able to gain access to some of the facilities there because of covid and the lockdown. The good thing is that we’ve also identified similar challenges that could have been a problem if they hadn’t been discovered now in other missions. Psyche is now fully staffed with the best of the best. Europa Clipper also had a very similar issue with just not enough staff, and they put in a very conscious effort to improve that. The JPL management deserves a huge amount of kudos for the way that they responded to the independent review board. They really focused on the areas that they needed to improve, and they did things like facilitated meetings between the line management with the project and the mission management, and really started to identify, “Where are the areas that we need more help; where are you really understaffed?” Young used the phrase a “masterclass in management” to describe the way JPL has really risen to do this.
One of the recommendations in the Psyche report was that there was just too much work, and they really could not execute on everything that they had in the queue. So we did delay the VERITAS mission to no earlier than 2031.
Short for Venus Emissivity, Radio science, InSAR, Topography and Spectroscopy, VERITAS is one of two planned orbiters JPL is building for NASA to study the Venus atmosphere and surface elevations. The agency had targeted a 2028 launch of VERITAS and a 2029 launch of the second orbiter, DAVINCI+, short for Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging. — TF
Nobody wants to do that. It was an agonizing decision. But by delaying it by these few years, it means that JPL can execute on the missions they have in the queue, and then we’ll pick up various tasks again. But we’re also delighted that in the current president’s budget request, there is money to actually keep the VERITAS science team going, to keep them together, to keep them working on honing the science goals of the mission and doing some of the pre-work before the mission really ramps up in a couple of years. It shows the power of really good independent review boards. When they come in and they can shine a different light, they really can help. And then to have an organization totally take it to heart and really make the changes that needed to happen, I just think it’s been an amazing success.
Q: How do you see NASA’s effort to study Venus more intensely playing out? And do you think the planetary science community’s going to be satisfied?
A: Obviously, the community’s not happy. Nobody wants to have to delay a mission. But the two missions together will do amazing science, and they will still do amazing science even if VERITAS launches no earlier than 2031. But I can’t say I wouldn’t be upset if I was in that community. In the Heliophysics Division, we also made the decision to pause Geospace because we didn’t have the budget.
She’s referring to the Geospace Dynamics Constellation, a planned series of satellites that were to be launched in 2027 to study the upper atmosphere and magnetosphere. — TF
It was an agonizing decision. But we get put in these jobs because you have to make tough decisions, and you have to make them within budget constraints. Certainly, we don’t want to delay DAVINCI+ to wait for VERITAS. Let’s get DAVINCI+ up and start the science, and then VERITAS can join DAVINCI+ and do great things together.
Q: Turning to the decadal surveys, what are the most technically challenging goals in those surveys?
A: Mars Sample Return is hugely challenging. Even I was really taken aback by just how complicated it is — all the pieces, all the things that have to work together, all of the design, all of the stuff that has to happen. We’ve never launched a rocket from another planet before, and that’s a big deal. You’ve also got planetary protection. You don’t want to damage Mars by building a launchpad there, so you have to come up with a way to basically throw the rocket up and then ignite it; then capturing of the samples; then putting them into the sample return container and have that container dock with the capsule return system and have that come back to Earth. In another area, the Habitable Worlds Observatory will be the next great observatory for astrophysics. There’s a huge amount of design work that’s going to have to go into that — it’s going to be the precision of the James Webb Space Telescope with a coronagraph. It is even more sophisticated than the one that will fly on the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. Looking forward, we can’t wait to see what’s going to be in the Biological and Physical Sciences Decadal that should come out this year. Then I can’t wait to see the heliophysics survey. There’s going to be some really great stuff in there. The idea of sending a mission over the poles of the sun; the sending of a mission that will leave the heliosphere completely in a really fast way. Not taking the time that Voyager took, but really, trying to get out there as quick as possible. Looking at missions that will totally map our Earth’s magnetosphere with many small spacecraft making coordinated measurements.
Q: Regarding the new Mars Sample Return independent review board, how concerned are you that one of the findings will be that the mission is too expensive?
A: It’s an expensive lesson because it’s a super challenging mission. For me, the convening of the second independent review board is to make sure that the way that we’re doing it is the best way to do it.
An independent review board concluded in 2020 that NASA and the European Space Agency’s early concept for Mars Sample Return was feasible within the budget and time frame. NASA and ESA have since added two sample retrieval helicopters to the mission and have delayed the return of the samples to 2033, so NASA in April convened a second IRB to examine the updated plan. – TF
And also, do we have the right budget profile for it? And if not, what do we do about that? We may have to make tough decisions to ensure it has the right budget. Is there a different way of doing the mission that we literally haven’t thought of? That’s sort of the lesson learned from the Psyche report. Do we have the right people with the right skill mixes on the mission, and can we achieve it? Can we achieve the mission on the timescale that we think we can? Are the technologies really as mature as we think they are? Do we need to do tech development in any area before sort of moving ahead? All these kinds of things that I really think that again, a highly qualified independent review board can do and can really either validate what we’re doing is right, and then we’ll push ahead and go confirm the mission. Or if they say a pivot is needed, then we’ll need to review that and see what the next steps are.
Q: When is the board scheduled to complete its review?
A: We haven’t set a full timeline yet. We want to get the major subsystems through their preliminary design reviews, mostly because we don’t want to impede progress in the mission. We don’t want people doing something twice or having to stop to prepare a bunch of inputs for the review boards. We really want to get the major subsystems through their PDRs [preliminary design reviews] so that all that material can then just go to the review board. So we’ll get the three major subsystems through and then we’ll take a pause, we’ll do the IRB and then reconvene for the PDR.
Q: Getting back to Artemis, are there science elements that you would like to see added that would benefit areas that you oversee?
A: The immediate answer is no, but we do have these complete reviews done at the agency level. Every mission directorate, every key person, is included in these reviews, and so we’ll have one of those every year to update the plans. As we know more about the capability and the plans and the timescale, then I think there may be time to add something. I think right now we’re really taking advantage of every opportunity we have.
Q: Have you seen any tension between the robotics science and the Artemis program in terms of competing for resources or budget?
A: There’s to date no competition. We have our budget. We’re all pushing in the same direction. The whole moon to Mars program and Artemis has just put this incredible energy into the agency. We’re all working to do the same goals: We’re all working to better science through space.
Q: Some congressional members already have put out some very strong statements about cutting the president’s budget request. What should the space science community expect?
A: It’s really hard to say. We run budget scenarios. I lay awake at night thinking what would I do if tough decisions would have to be made. I think often it’s a shame we focus on what’s not in the budget, rather than what is in the budget. It’s very easy to say, “Well, there isn’t really enough money for this” or “GDC [Geospace Dynamics Constellation] is on a pause” or “there isn’t enough money for this mission” or whatever. But there is a lot in there, and there’s a lot of really incredible stuff that’s going on. As I said, we’re are always under constraints. We always want to do more. We’ll just have to see how it plays out. And if there are cuts, we’ll have to deal with them, and tough decisions will have to be made. And some people are not going to like it.
Q: On the topic of workforce, how is NASA able to compete with the commercial, military, intelligence and high-tech sectors for the limited talent available?
A: It’s tough. We certainly see people leaving to go to support some of the really new space companies, some of the high-tech companies, some of the artificial intelligence, you name it. And it’s very hard to compete, particularly with the salaries that are offered. The only thing I can say is the work at NASA is really rewarding. And I’d be lying if I said it’s not a concern. It’s a concern that it’s hard to compete. But we do seem to get the best and the brightest.
Going back to the Tom Young report, JPL has really put together a very dedicated effort to recruit and retain the best, but it’s certainly a challenge that we have to face, particularly as the commercial sector continues to grow and grow. NASA is a wonderful place to work, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to retain some of the brightest people when they’re offered really amazing opportunities elsewhere.
Q: Is there anything I didn’t ask you about that you’d like to add?
A: I do think it’s important to focus on all the good that is in the budget and is in the portfolio. It’s so easy to look at what’s not there and say, “My favorite mission or my subject or my community’s not in there,” but there really is a lot. I talk about the importance of community unity. All boats rise together, and some days, it’s not your day, but tomorrow it will be. So we’re not canceling things; we are delaying, pausing in order to be able to deal with the constraints. It’s important to look at what an amazing budget we have and the amazing things that we do in SMD.