More on Alan Stern’s Departure; Ed Weiler Promises to Balance Cost, Quality

There has been a lot of media coverage of S. Alan Stern’s departure as head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD). Stern lasted less than a year on the job before abruptly resigning on Wednesday in the wake of the agency’s decision to rescind deep cuts in the popular Mars Exploration Rover program.

Because neither Stern nor NASA Administrator Mike Griffin revealed the precise reasons behind the departure, people were left speculating about a decision that has left the science community stunned.

“His departure is a shock to people,” Mark Sykes, director of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz., told Scientific American. “It means potentially a black day for science at NASA.”

Sykes speculates that cost overruns in the Mars program – and Stern’s efforts to rein them in – may have led to the resignation. The Mars Science Laboratory, set for launch in 2009, is over budget. Stern “ruffle[d] some feathers. People would come to him with requests for additional money after cost overruns [in past missions] … and his response was, ‘No.’ People weren’t used to hearing that,” Sykes said.

The decision to make deep cutbacks on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which Griffin quickly rescinded, was also deeply unpopular, according to Cornell University’s James Bell, a lead scientist on the rover program.

“It’s clear that [Stern] was pushing very hard on the system,” Bell said. “He may have thought he had more latitude with Mike Griffin than he did.”

Stern’s departure comes at a time when NASA is facing serious financial pressures from flat budgets aggravated by cost overruns and delays on major programs. NASA is also cutting back on its ambitious Mars exploration program in favor of studying the outer planets. Griffin says he decided on the change after the National Research Council gave the agency’s Mars exploration program an “A” and its outer planet program a “D.”

In an interview with Space News’ Brian Berger, Stern’s interim replacement, Ed Weiler, said he doesn’t precisely know how the budget overruns and changes in priority will affect Martian exploration.

Weiler – a “salty, straight-talking astrophysicist” who has headed up Goddard Space Flight Center since 2004 – said he needs to get up to speed on SMD’s priorities and missions. These projects include a Mars sample return spacecraft that NASA hopes to launch in 2018-20.

The new SMD chief said he wants to strike a balance between top-quality engineering and cost control.

“If programs get out of control and I suspect they weren’t going to be able to get back within control, I have a clear record as the associate administrator for six years. I canceled five programs. I’m capable of doing that again,” Weiler said.

“On the other hand I’m also going to make sure that programs aren’t nickel and dimed just to save a few cents, because I have direct personal experience where cost was the only concern. And that was Mars ’98. Do you remember that little baby? And what I got for good cost control on that program was two craters on Mars,” he added.

Mars 98 consisted of a lander and a rover. Both vehicles were lost due to mistakes made by the prime contractor, Lockheed Martin. The orbiter burned up in the atmosphere while the lander crashed into the surface.