Restructuring NASA Lunar Science

Resources are not infinite, and the 2013 administrative budget will call for a significant cut to planetary sciences. This is causing a stir (to put it mildly) in the planetary community and has left many organizations scrambling for a plan. For example, the Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG) presented their final report this week, summarized here by Casey Dreier. Essentially, the proposed cuts severely limits the potential of future Mars missions, and once again Mars sample return is at least a decade away. You can read Casey’s post for the latest on the Mars program, but it’s a similar story across the board and has been for many years. Visit the Planetary Society for the latest on how the community is responding and how you can help. NASA calls for promising returns but winds up in trouble either by underfunding programs (see: the Constellation program) or allowing budgetary overruns at the detriment to other programs. Many missions are pulled off within their proposed budgets (like the Moon’s GRAIL mission and the Juno probe), but overruns are often joked about as being standard operating procedure.

Despite the challenges, we keep reaching out beyond low earth orbit. “50 Years of Space Exploration” via National Geographic (image linked to source).

As the momentum of the Apollo missions began to wane in the eighties, the lunar community also started to shrink. Papers published from the Proceedings of the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) saw fewer lunar papers as the Apollo-era scientists started to leave the field – and of course at the same time other areas of planetary science were growing. Funding for lunar research lessened and many researchers followed the money to Mars (and elsewhere). In some years, the week-long LPSC would host only a couple lunar sessions (of 35+ total sessions). The most recent LPSC had 6 lunar-specific sessions, and of course there is significant overlap with broader session topics like Impact Craters and Airless Bodies. In addition, right now several satellites are further characterizing our nearest neighbor and keeping the Moon in the science spotlight.

Facilitating the Moon’s resurgence is the NASA Lunar Science Institute (NLSI), a virtual institution and primary hub of lunar research. Established in March 2008, NLSI is comprised of a small home base at NASA Ames and several US teams and international partners. They host the annual Lunar Science Forum at NASA Ames (the 5th annual NLSI Lunar Science Forum was recently held in July). Each year the Forum is bigger and better-attended, packed with three full days of lunar science. The institute has been key in rebuilding and strengthening ties in the lunar community, but that seems set to change.

NASA recently put out a call for comments on soon-to-be-released Cooperative Announcement NNH12ZDA013J (CAN). The call for comments are to deal with high-level features of a proposed virtual institute to be jointly supported by NASA Science Mission Directorate (SMD) and Human Exploration and Operation Missions Directorate (HEOMD).  A selection from the Addendum about the scope of the CAN:

The research scope for the planned CAN will be in the fields of lunar, NEA and Martian moons sciences, with preference given to topics that relate to the joint interests of both planetary science and human exploration.

This new Institute will replace the NLSI and expand its role to include near earth asteroids (NEAs) and Martian moons (Phobos and Deimos). There are a number of current organizations I assume will be part of or partnered with the new Institute, as their goals overlap. This includes the MPPG as mentioned above, the Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG), the Lunar Exploration and Analysis Group (LEAG), and the Center for Lunar Science and Exploration (CLSE), the Next Generation Lunar Scientists and Engineers (NGLSE) group, and the Lunar Graduate Conference (LunGradCon). While the MPPG, SBAG and LEAG are independent planning groups which I think will remain intact, I am not as certain about the effects this new Institute will have on the CLSE, NGLSE and LunGradCon. Holy crap that is a lot of acronyms.

NASA loves acronyms. They have a whole search engine devoted to searching through 14198 acronyms, which does not include many mission and organization names (click image for page).

The CLSE is also a primarily virtual institute (I think), but is organized by the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) and the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, TX. The CLSE states they state they are an “integral part” of NLSI, so perhaps CLSE will become the sole lunar-specific virtual institute.

NGLSE I believe has independent funding from but arose in partnership with NLSI. There is always a one-day NGLSE workshop held the day prior to the start of the NLSI Lunar Science Forum. Noah Petro, part of the NGLSE executive committee, has a very broad definition of “next-gen” which encompasses anyone who entered the lunar field post-Apollo.

LunGradCon is held the weekend before the NLSI Lunar Science Forum (typically a one-day conference on Sunday), and is run by graduate students for graduate students (and some post-docs). As a participant and member of the organizing committee, I am totally unbiased when I say it is a great opportunity to network with those new to the field of lunar research and see what the community is working on. The LunGradCon organizing committee will have to figure out (with input from other graduate students) how to adapt to this new community.

There are a couple of other points in the CAN that are worth mentioning. I wrote above that the new Institute will expand the role of NLSI, but not that it will expand its size. During the recent Forum there was much discussion about the future of NLSI, and whether there would be future Lunar Science Forums. The diplomatic answer from Greg Schmidt was that there would definitely be another Forum at NASA Ames, but he never specified Lunar Forum. What I see happening is a defocusing of the Institute that mirrors the defocusing of NASAs exploration strategy from Moon First to Flexible Path. I started this article with discussion of funding because I think the current status of NASA’s budget is a large player in why this change is occurring. In regards to the research scope of the Institute, the addendum is not very exclusive:

Additionally, while the topics of the planned CAN focus on potential destinations for human exploration (the Moon, NEAs, Phobos and Deimos), these topics can sometimes best be considered within the broader context of comparative planetology. Therefore, innovative proposals that include comparisons with main belt asteroids, comets, Mercury, Venus and Mars would be appropriate. Similarly, studies of telerobotic operational sites and associated research potential, including Earth-Moon Lagrange Points and the moons of Mars, may also be appropriate as part of a larger scientific effort.

There is no foreseeable future where Venus, Mercury, or comets will be targets of human exploration, but their inclusion leaves the door open to further defocusing of the Institute. In addition, Mars is unique and already has its own NASA funded program and plan for human and robotic exploration. Large sample return from Mars and the Moon are feasible if funded, and the success of Hayabusa showed we can actually get something from asteroids. OSIRIS-REx will hopefully continue that trend (with a potential return next decade).

This CAN is asking for comments on the “high-level operations” of the proposed Institute, so I believe it is an inevitability that NLSI will be replaced. Note that the interpretations and opinions I’ve talked about are my own, and both them and the CAN are subject to change. I am concerned about the connections the lunar community has built in the past few years, and am worried it will once again start to fade. Worried, but not closed to the idea of this new Institute. There is much potential here, and I do see value in collaboration between groups studying these airless bodies. However, I attend both the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference and the NLSI Lunar Science Forum, and I have benefited greatly from both. LPSC is a huge, week-long conference with four simultaneous sessions going on throughout the day, making it impossible to see everything. The Forum is a much more intimate setting with my immediate peers in the lunar community, and I can see that being lost in the incorporation of new solar system bodies.

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