Interview

The Unapologetic Science Chief

Scienceinterviews Ed Weiler, who's back at the helm of NASA's science program after a stint running Goddard Space Flight Center, about his plans for managing a $4.5 billion effort that spans numerous disciplines and must grapple with a serious glut of missions.

Ed Weiler is back. The astronomer is again at the helm of NASA's science program in Washington, D.C., after a stint running Goddard Space Flight Center in nearby Greenbelt, Maryland. Known for his bluntness and pragmatism, Weiler is not afraid to use his sharp tongue as a tool in managing a $4.5 billion effort that spans numerous disciplines and must grapple with a serious glut of missions (see main text). He argues that telling it like it is goes with the position. "The biggest mistake people make in these jobs is trying to make people happy," he says. "If you can make everybody slightly unhappy, you've succeeded."

On his choice of Europa over Titan for a 2020 mission:
E.W.: I'd love to start both a Titan and Europa mission right now. I'd like to land on Titan and sail its methane lakes, but I've also been bruised and beaten about overruns. Titan was very, very, very compelling science. The trouble is, compelling science that is more or less in the blueprint stage. When we looked at a cost schedule and technical readiness, it was a slam dunk [in favor of Europa].
On cost overruns in astronomy and other projects:
E.W.: We've done pretty damn well in astronomy, and I'm getting a little bit tired of negativity. Yeah, missions cost more than they were proposed to cost. Some people think that these overruns are due to mismanagement--just fire a project manager and you solve the problem. Believe it or not, most of us don't want to see overruns, because it means we can't do the hot, sexy new thing. And if you think we don't get mean with contractors, go talk to some of the CEOs who've sat here and got an earful from me.
On the February failure of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory:
E.W.: We've had a disaster, so let's look at all our options. How much will a reflight cost? And now it's a different world with different technology--the Japanese are right now flying a carbon dioxide monitor--than 8 years ago [when the program began]. What deals could we work with the Japanese to share data, what airborne programs could we pursue? Probably in the next month or two we'll come to some decisions.
On overruns on the Mars Science Laboratory:
E.W.: I went to our advisory committee and laid out the option of canceling MSL. I wanted them to vote on that, and you know how the vote came out? Unanimously not to cancel it. I wanted the community, as represented by that group of 10 or 15 people, to tell me. If they had voted 10 to 2 to cancel it, I would have told my administrator that the community has spoken. You could cancel MSL, but you would probably kiss a sample return goodbye for yet another 5 or 10 years, because ultimately you need that technology.
On the Explorers program, designed to launch smaller and cheaper missions:
E.W.: If there were any extra money, that's a place that we should put it. Everybody knows it's good. There have been some problems, too. However, saying that they were all due to an inexperienced principal investigator is a gross overstatement. If you gave me a godlike figure as the PI, and he has Homer Simpson and Abbott and Costello as project manager and project scientist, he will fail. It takes a village, it takes a team.
On cost estimates in the decadal reports of the National Academies:
E.W.: Most "cost estimates" that go to the [National Research Council]-and I'm speaking from 31 years of experience with decadals-come from NASA centers or contractors; they don't come from NASA headquarters, and they don't get reviewed by NASA headquarters. In many cases, they only get reviewed by center management, because believe it or not, scientists who work at centers aren't necessarily part of the military structure. They don't obey orders or fire drills, they speak for themselves.

Scientists cannot do cost estimation, I'm sorry, they're not trained for that, we're trained in quantum mechanics and string theory, whatever, but not in cost estimation. … Anybody who compares a decadal cost-survey estimate to anything in reality, well, I have no comment on that kind of person. … We suggested very strongly that the NRC consider pulling in a contractor, perhaps somebody who knows something about cost estimation, and they're doing that [now].
On money:
E.W.: A billion dollars doesn't buy much any more, it buys you 3500 major aerospace engineers for a year. You put 3500 engineers into a stadium, the announcer will say the place is a ghost town. Most people don't realize, it's not a lot of people.
On joint NASA-European Space Agency planning for Mars:
E.W.: Nobody owns Mars. These are different economic times; we can no longer afford to compete in this arena. I know this is shocking, but [American and European scientists] tend to have a lot of the same scientific goals. Isn't that amazing? So shouldn't we do it together and share the data? I know this violates ego and nationalism.
On astrobiology:
E.W.: I love astrobiology. I have no doubt whatsoever that we will discover life in this century, I just wish I could live long enough to see it.
On complaints from the scientific community about project delays:
E.W.: I don't want to sound glib, but I hear this term "crisis," and I remember the good old days when we were fat, dumb, and happy and we were pleased as punch we had [the International Ultraviolet Explorer] up there generating data and giving money to thousands of astronomers. Those were the good old days. Now let's fast-forward to 2008. Let's see, I've got at least $10 billion to $12 billion of great observatories flying around--I can't even name them all. These are truly the worst of times.

--Andrew Lawler