Alan Stern Is Leaving NASA

NASA Administrator Announces Science Mission Directorate Leadeship Changes

"NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin issued the following statement Wednesday regarding the announcement that Dr. S. Alan Stern, NASA associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, has decided to leave the agency."

From: Stern, Alan (HQ-DA000): "SMD Colleagues-- Yesterday I offered and Mike Griffin reluctantly accepted my resignation as Associate Administrator. Mike will shortly be naming an interim AA. I will remain at NASA for a few weeks. It's been my privilege to serve the NASA and the scientific community, and to work with you. I also want you to know that Mike and I remain on good terms. He remains in my eyes the best Administrator NASA has ever had."

From an internal email by "Today Alan Stern announced that he had resigned his position as AA. In his talk to the Science Mission Directorate he said that the management issues were about cost control and that he did not see a way for him to do what needs to be done. He didn't go into details. Evidently there are extremely strong opinions about all this. ... Staff reaction to the resignation was I think a bit of a shock and a great sense of loss. Alan brought a breath of fresh air and a new spirit to the organization that was a lot of fun for me to share."

Editor's note: Mike Griffin seems to have an uncanny ability to cause anyone with talent, energy, and dedication to walk away from NASA. This departure by Alan Stern is troubling - no, it is downright depressing. Indeed, I think it clearly signals the end of Mike Griffin's ability to credibly manage the agency.

Comments? Send them to Your responses thus far:

While I have not agreed with all his decisions, I think that Alan Stern's tenure at SMD has been a huge boost to space science and his resignation is truly unfortunate. Also unfortunate, however, is the amount of misinformation being spread (often with the best intentions) by people without a full grasp of the facts.

For example, "Anonymous manager" used MER operations as an example of "overzealous spending", pointing out "a 75% reduction in productivity for a 20% budget cut" on a project with "300 individuals driving two rovers". The facts are the following: The proposed budget cut, that was to be applied to the remaining funds in FY08, was roughly 40%. One rover was to be cut back from the current standard 80% duty cycle (due to the way Mars time aligns with a standard work shift) to 60% (this does not include the fact that the rovers are not commanded on weekends), a 25% reduction. In addition, the second rover that was to be hibernated (not killed) still required weekly contacts and some minimum amount of engineering analysis and commanding to maintain its viability in the dynamic martian environment; let's say this is an 75% reduction. This still comes out to ~50% overall, more than a proportional 40%, but unfortunately project expenditures are never linear. As for the 300 people driving the rovers, total MER staffing (management, operations, IT support, data processing, etc.) at JPL is roughly 50 FTEs; the larger number quoted accounts for part-time individuals and the large science team, many of whom receive minimal funding.

It is fair to question the scientific usefulness and management efficiency of any mission, particularly those in their extended phases. MER undergoes detailed external (non-JPL) science and management reviews at least annually investigating these issues, and so far they have concluded that it represents an excellent science value for the expenditure and that the operations budget is lean and reasonable. Your opinion may vary.

There are many troubling issues with costs and overruns withing SMD, and many places (certainly including JPL!) where blame can be assigned. But while I welcome a spirited (no pun intended) discussion, I think we should try to avoid opinions masquerading as facts.

Anonymous MER staffer

The recent resignation of SMD head Alan Stern is indeed very unfortunate as Alan was leading the charge for physical responsibility within NASA Space Sciences and hence getting the American tax payer best science for the dollar. Hopefully this will lead to a much needed public debate over the subject. One very recent example of overzealous spending are the JPL MER operations. NASA requested of JPL a $4M reduction in spending for an already long extended mission. JPL's response was to threaten shutting down one rover and operating the other at 50% duty cycle. Thats a 75% reduction in productivity for 20% budget cut ! This hardly seems like a proportionate response, but instead an emotional over reaction that will ultimately prove more destructive that helpful to JPL's objectives.

No one is more impressed with the accomplishments of the MER mission than I. It is a glowing exampling of what "out of the box" solutions JPL can produce. But lets get real, these rovers have been in operation for 3 years. They should no longer require a marching army to operate. Empire builders at JPL are clearly using public support for MER to defend over solving the problem keeping 300 individuals driving two rovers. Other examples of throwing people, not creative solutions, at the problem exist at JPL including MSL development and CASSINI operations.

JPL has many talented and creative individuals trying to do an honest days work, if not herculean. But their reputation is being tarnished by JPL empire builders who's only goal is to turn highly ambitious projects into public works programs. Alan tried but failed to get this situation under control. But he could not do it without the support of Charles Elachi (JPL director). Only he can and should put an end to wasteful spending in his institution. Only he can send set the needed tone at JPL. But he has failed to do so. Now JPL will have a new pit bull to deal with. Their old "friend" Ed Weiler from GSFC.

Anonymous manager of a NASA science mission

Volume 2, Number 17 ( March 26, 2008 )


If you have not heard, Alan Stern has resigned at NASA Headquarters. As Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, Alan was a tremendous driving force for positive change. He made many really tough decisions with a full commitment and stood by his people at all times. What an absolutely historic year this has been. I can only tell you that I thoroughly enjoyed working with Alan and that it has been the highlight in my very long NASA career. Alan is just outstanding in every way. I feel I have lost my best boss and gained a great friend at the same time. Although he won't be down the hall he will return to our planetary science community. Dr. Ed Weiler director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, has been named as interim Associate Administrator. I have known Dr. Weiler for many years and I am delighted that he will be coming back to Headquarters. From my perspective, the Planetary Science Division continues to have a very bright and stable future with tremendously exciting science missions in all stages of development and operation. We have an outstanding staff of people who are committed to the path we are on and are ready to face each and every challenge ahead and that has not changed.

Alan Stern tried to do more to introduce and implement fiscal responsibility and accountability than anyone else in the history of NASA. Of course there was pain, but Alan was even-handed in "spreading the pain" across programs and projects. In addition, Alan could see right through unnecessary costs, including the self-serving, artificially inflated costs of the poorly managed MSL program. Alan was not afraid to question assumptions and "traditions" that were never questioned before. Alan was impatient with poor management than sacrificed science. By simply serving the interests of good science at reasonable costs he was a threat to some of the stodgy interests and assumptions of the past. His cost- and science-conscious philosophy was rippling through the Agency and its contractors, introducing accountability and responsibility that had always been subordinated to financial and power interests.

Before he became the AA for SMD, Alan was one of the smartest and most engaged PI's I ever encountered. He knew everything about his missions.

He carried that kind of dedication into his NASA job and noone ever doubted that his primary interest was conducting great science at the greatest "bang for the buck" for the taxpayers.

As to whether this will put an end to "Griffin's credibility to manage" NASA, let's put this in perspective. Two days ago the 4,000th U.S. soldier died in Iraq, the economy is in deep enough trouble that the Federal Reserve has had to step in with a $29 Billion mortgage loan guarantee, and just a couple of months ago Congress could not come up with a measly $1 Billion extra for NASA, an amount that is chewed up in...what? two days in Iraq and Afghanistan, so does anyone here really believe this management change will even register with Congress or the White House?

But Alan Stern answers the question of Griffin's management abilities in his email, which you posted a copy of on NASA Watch, when he writes, "[Mike Griffin] remains in my eyes the best Administrator NASA has ever had." Who are we to disagree with Alan Stern?

I wish Congress would do its job and fund NASA in a manner commiserate with its many missions. I also wish pork-barrel spending was eliminated. Call me a dreamer.

I find the first and last Stern items on the current page to be very intriguing when juxtaposed.

Taken together, they seem to say that there may be no one who could "credibly manage" NASA in the current environment.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on March 26, 2008 10:45 AM.

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