FIRST AMONG EQUALS : EPILOGUE

 
 
After NASA Headquarters and the Space Science Board were reorganized in November 1961, NASA and its space scientists settled into a regular productive routine. After the early launch vehicle failures, NASA learned to build launch vehicles and spacecraft that normally worked. Instead of the only four out of ten successful missions in 1959, nine out ten missions were successful in the mid 1960s, thereby reducing one of the risks to space scientists. As more and more groups participated in successful missions and acquired large amounts of data, the competition became less severe and the failure to get aboard a mission less of a calamity. In turn, space scientists learned NASA procedures, served on the subcommittees, gained confidence in the integrity of the system, and recognized that submitting superior scientific proposals was the only way to get on NASA missions. NASA accepted most of the recommendations of the subcommittees, established new missions and issued Announcements of Flight Opportunity (AFOs). Scientists submitted proposals. NASA selected some and rejected others. Space science prospered through the first half of the 1960s.
 
In the mid-1960s-as students rioted in the streets, funding decreased for new space science missions, the number of space scientists continued to increase, competition became more intense, the NASA bureaucracy increased in size and power-the subcommittee procedures began to change. First to go was the personal appearance of the scientist before the subcommittee to plead his or her case and be questioned by the members of the subcommittee. The members of the subcommittees themselves brought about this change. They became concerned about this procedure. Didn't it give an unfair advantage to the articulate over the inarticulate scientist? Didn't it give the proposers an opportunity to subtly modify their proposal as they answered subcommittee questions? How could the members of a subcommittee be sure everyone was given an equitable opportunity to fly unless they based their judgments on written proposals that were all delivered to NASA on a specified date?
 
If the written proposal was to be the sole document upon which to base a decision, then great care had to be taken to ensure that the proposal contained all the relevant information needed for evaluation. As a result, AFOs and proposals became longer and more complex.
 
Next, the pressure from the NASA legal and procurement staffs to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest began to override the need to have the most competent scientists evaluate proposals. The chairperson had to exclude a member not only during the evaluation of his or her own proposal but also during the evaluation of any other proposals from that member's institution. Obviously, there was also a conflict of interest if a scientist reviewed a competitor's proposal. Subcommittee chairpersons found that before they could start to evaluate a set of proposals, they must examine all the proposals to be evaluated and then augment the membership of their subcommittees by additional consultants so that they had a group with no appearance of any conflict of interest with respect to any of the proposals.
 
As the flight opportunities decreased, however, and the number and quality of the competing scientists increased, it became virtually impossible to use active, knowledgeable space scientists to evaluate proposals-they all had conflicts of interest. In a little over a decade, the efforts to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest bad taken the selection out of the hands of the knowledgeable, experienced space scientist and placed it is the hands of "disinterested" scientists, with little or no knowledge of the field or the competence of the competing scientists. Fortunately, by the late 1980s, NASA recognized the need to relax some of its conflict-of-interest regulations and to begin once more to use competent practicing space scientists to evaluate proposals-but not their own, of course.
 
In the beginning, the Announcement of Flight Opportunity was essential and solved many of the problems in the selection process. Unfortunately, it also moved space science an enormous distance down the bureaucratic road. The AFO and the scientists' response to it became formidable documents. The fifth NASA AFO, issued in July 1965, ran 107 pages. 176 It described the NASA selection process and the opportunities for research on seven scientific missions, the Apollo Program, Explorers, sounding rockets, and the X-15 and Convair 990 research airplanes. Aspiring space scientists had to read all this, decide which missions interested them, then promptly inform NASA of those missions so that NASA could inform them of any changes in the schedule or the spacecraft for those missions. Proposals grew to 50 or 100 pages as the competing scientists strove to convince the subcommittees of the merits of their experiments. Finally, to cope with the burgeoning blizzard of paper, NASA placed a strict limit on the number of pages that could be included in a proposal.
 
NASA Abolishes the Subcommittees
 
As the number of scientific missions and the competition for their payload space increased during the mid-1960s, most of a subcommittee's time was taken up with evaluating experiments and little was available to help plan NASA's scientific missions. In 1966, NASA created the Lunar and Planetary Missions Board and the Astronomy Missions Board to plan most of NASA's scientific missions. In 1969, NASA revised its advisory structure, retaining the Space Science Steering Committee to oversee the selection process but eliminating the subcommittees. NASA changed 37-1-1 so that it required the program offices to establish, for each mission, a separate working group whose sole purpose was to evaluate the proposals for that particular mission. As a result, the corporate memory provided by the overlapping membership of the subcommittees was lost. NASA had to wait until it had received all the proposals for the mission before it appointed the members of the working group to be sure they had no conflict of interest. 177
 
The aspiring, perspiring space scientist, however, no longer sits down by himself or herself to compose a fifty-page proposal. Instead, he or she assembles a large team of co-investigators to write individual parts of, and increase the credibility of, the proposal. Foreign scientists join the team to furnish part of the instrument and handle some of the data analysis. This reduces the cost of the instrument thereby making it more attractive to a program office trying to keep the overall cost of the mission down. Industrial subcontractors help prepare the proposal. Three to six months later the team, along with ten or so competing teams, delivers a tightly written proposal to NASA. According to McDonald, organizing a team of co-investigators and preparing a technical proposal limited to twenty-five pages is still the most difficult work a space scientist does. 178 NASA calls on a contractor to assemble the working group who will evaluate and place the proposals in the usual four categories. A Headquarters scientist uses the recommendations of the working group to select the teams to participate in the mission. Otherwise, the basic procedure is the much the same as that laid down in 37-1-1 in April 1960.
 
NASA's selection process continues to work. Generally, superior scientists are selected, their instruments perform well, and they make scientific discoveries. Scientists who are not selected occasionally protest the decision to the associate administrator for the Office of Space Science. Very rarely do they take their protest beyond the associate administrator to the NASA chief scientist or the NASA administrator. In 1971, Dr. Charles W. Townes, chairman of the Space Science Board, protested the selection of the scientists who had been chosen to conduct experiments during the Apollo-Soyuz mission, the joint American and Soviet mission. In this case, because of a shortage of time, the associate administrator for the Office of Space Science had decided not to follow TMI 37-1-1 and instead had selected a group of scientists who already had experiments ready. After Townes' protest, the associate administrator ran a high-speed selection process that rivaled that started by Lloyd Berkner's 4th-of-July telegram in 1958. Except for this instance, no scientist has overturned a decision made by an associate administrator for the Office of Space Science.
 
Although the selection process continues to work, the paperwork is enormous and the process is ponderous and impersonal. A decade or two may pass from the time NASA issues an AFO to the publication of the scientific results. Young, creative, ambitious scientists no longer find space science as attractive as they once did. To begin with, a space scientist can no longer expect to follow up an exciting discovery within a year or two. He or she must now wait ten to twenty years between major missions. Einstein, the last x-ray observatory, flew in 1978; AXAF, the Advanced X-Ray Astronomy Facility, the next U.S. x-ray observatory, will not fly until the mid-1990s. The last orbiting astronomical observatory ceased operation in the early 1970s; the next observatory. the Hubble telescope, was not launched until 1990. In addition, the length of time between missions, the cost and complexity of scientific instruments, and the size and caliber of the engineering team required to prepare an instrument make it extremely difficult for academic scientists to participate in the space science Program.
 
Nevertheless, despite all the delays, the paperwork, and the risks of space flight, the exploration of the invisible universe beyond our atmosphere continues to challenge scientists and engineers. In February 1989, NASA announced the selection of scientists for the Earth Observing System (EOS); 179 455 experiments were proposed for EOS. NASA selected 58 proposals involving 551 scientists from 168 institutions located in 32 states and 13 countries. The process for selecting space scientists continues to present a difficult and complex challenge to NASA Headquarters.
 
The Space Science Board recently completed a study that developed the strategy for an ambitious and exciting space program for the period 1995 through 2015. 180 The National Commission on Space proposed an agenda for the civilian space program for the next fifty years. 181 NASA reviewed four major space initiatives to see which to start in the next decade; Mission to Planet Earth, Exploration of the Solar System, Outpost on the Moon, and Humans to Mars. 182 On July 20, 1989, President George Bush announced a long-range commitment to space exploration, including a space station, a manned outpost on the Moon, and a manned mission to Mars. 183 It appears quite possible that in April 2060 an associate administrator for the Office of Space Science will be selecting space scientists using the same basic process prescribed in TMI 37-1-1 in April 1960.


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