Space Science Missions

The Discovery Program of small planetary missions was established in 1992 as part of a new initiative to develop small missions that could be accomplished largely by the space science community with minimal oversight from NASA Headquarters.  In this program, new missions are periodically solicited from principal investigator-led teams made up of scientists and engineers from academia, government laboratories, and industry.  Each Announcement of Opportunity (AO) is followed by a competitive peer review process that selects several missions for study and then one or two for implementation.  The program is defined by its demand for rapid development in a cost-capped environment, which has encouraged innovative management approaches and techniques.  To date, ten challenging space science missions to distant destinations have been launched, each led by a single principal investigator with the integral support of two dozen project managers, hundreds of scientists, and thousands of engineers.  Discovery missions have been sent to explore asteroids, comets, the moon, Mercury, Mars, and even the solar wind.  Incredible images, large data sets, and surprising measurements have increased our knowledge of the solar system many-fold.  In each case, mission success required careful planning, dedication, teamwork, and a fourth factor – the ability to quickly respond to and resolve unforeseen challenges, without exceeding the original estimates for budget and development time.  Although the process for selecting these small planetary science missions is extensive, it is impossible to completely predict just how the newly-formed teams will react when faced with challenges such as technical failures, changing requirements, personnel vacancies, budget cuts, and even changes in NASA’s tolerance of risk during the course of proposing, studying, formulating, building, and launching a spacecraft.  The constrained budget ($350 M, including launch vehicle and operations), short development period (35 months from confirmation to launch), and limited amount of financial, schedule, and personnel reserves for missions in this program increase the importance of adjusting to changes quickly and effectively.  Projects with such inherently small margins suffer disproportionately from mistakes or inaccurate assessments of a situation; errors that multiply quickly may be beyond resolution within the parameters of time and budget if not caught early.  These projects therefore provide an intriguing set of examples of leadership and teamwork.

Susan Niebur is currently conducting a study of how each team met its greatest challenge, persevered, and returned groundbreaking science in a short time and with a constrained budget.  This research on the management history of the small planetary missions of theDiscovery Program, added to her work as Discovery Program Scientist at NASA Headquarters in the first half of this decade, make her well-qualified to speak on past missions and the application of lessons learned to future teaming arrangements and plans to explore the solar system or universe beyond.