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Flight Missions

March 15, 2008

Not one, but two tables at the LPSC Women’s Networking Breakfast chose to discuss the roles of women on planetary science flight missions.  The issue is complex, but the women in the room reduced it to a few key points:

1. Few, if any, women are currently qualified to serve as Mission Principal Investigator under the new rules for the upcoming New Frontiers (and, incidentally, the closed SMEX) AO.

2. The pipeline to becoming qualified is vague and undefined.  There was a request for definition of a specific pathway that would provide the necessary experience before the end of one’s scientific career. 

3. If there is a pipeline, and it assumes that one is first an instrument Co-I, then an instrument deputy PI or PI, and then a deputy mission PI before becoming a mission PI, is there really enough time in one person’s career to complete this path?  For example, are there even enough Outer Planets mission opportunities for one person to gain this experience without changing research focus?

4. What is the role of Participating Scientist Programs in such a pathway?  

5. The composition of instrument and mission teams is a networking issue.  What can be done to encourage the advancement of women on mission  teams?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. sandrift permalink*
    May 20, 2008 12:21 pm

    Spike is correct – Dr.Weiler knew of the community’s discontent with the PI requirements, and it was widely expected that he would dispense with them quickly.

    Interestingly, Dr. Stern was ultimately unable to support his previous assertion that PI experience was a primary factor in cost overruns and schedule slips on PI-led missions. He admitted (in response to a direct question from the audience) at the last meeting of the Planetary Science Subcommittee that PI experience was only one of several factors that contributed to cost and schedule problems. He nonetheless stated that although the requirements might be loosened, they would not be discarded. Obviously, it doesn’t matter now.

  2. Spike permalink
    May 20, 2008 2:18 am

    Yes, the change to the PI qualification requirement was only changed once Alan Stern left. Ed Wieler has a very different perspective on the issue from Dr. Stern. As long as Dr. Wieler is the AA, I wouldn’t expect the requirement to be reinstated.

  3. geochem-mom permalink
    May 13, 2008 2:53 pm

    So I just got the NSPIRES email about the upcoming New Frontiers mission to the outer planetscall and it explicitly states that “No minimum experience qualifications will be required of the PI, but the experience and expertise of the proposing team will be an evaluation factor for the evaluation of submitted NF proposals. With the cancellation of minimum PI experience requirements, NASA has terminated prescreening for compliance with the cancelled requirements.” For those of us out of the NASA headquarters loop, was this change made only after Stern left? What’s the story? Has this policy been nixed for good?

  4. March 25, 2008 12:22 am

    This has come up repeatedly at the Planetary Science Subcommittee meetings. The justification that used to be given by Alan Stern was that there was a correlation between PI experience and cost overruns/schedule problems (less of the former meant more of the latter). However, at the most recent meeting a few weeks ago, Dr. Stern admitted that a detailed study showed that there was no correlation between any single issue on PI-led missions and their overruns/schedule problems, including the expertise of the PI (i.e., the sources of the problems vary from mission to mission).

    Nonetheless, Dr. Stern has used the analogy that we don’t hand over the keys of $60M military aircraft to people who don’t have training, so why should NASA hand over the keys of a $500-$750M spaceflight mission to a scientist who’s never run anything bigger than a grant for $300K? (There is some logic to this, I must confess, but the implementation is a different story.)

    Stern would say that if you want to be a PI, you need to consider changes of research focus if that is what is needed (e.g., the outer planets example above, although this may be a faulty example, as the OPAG chair has stated vigorously that real OP missions require flagships, which will never be PI-led).

    The point has been made, with lackluster reception at HQ, that this policy may discriminate against women for any number of reasons. However, there are several examples of women who are or have been instrument/mission PIs or project scientists and have the requisite experience: Maria Zuber, Luann Becker, Joy Crisp, Sue Smrekar, Ellen Stofan, Carle Pieters (this is just the list I can think of off the top of my head). These women have found a way to get there, so looking at their pathways might be useful (e.g., consider working at JPL; there is no shortage of opportunities there for project management experience, which is the other major “in”).

    The PSS has raised the issue of pathways/onramps previously, but we still have not received much of a satisfying answer. For now, I suggest that if you think you may want to lead a mission under Discovery, Scout, New Frontiers, SMEX, etc., you should start telling people that you want the requisite experience. Tell people over beers, tell the people you know who are writing proposals or may write them, tell anyone who will listen.

  5. March 19, 2008 12:47 pm

    From what I have heard, this is a sticky subject for all young scientists. If you don’t get involved in other flight missions early, you will never have enough “experience” for NASA to become a PI. The same people will put in the mission proposals, the same science gets awarded. This will become a large issue as the older PIs retire in the next 20 years and the younger scientists come up and find they are not “experienced” enough…

  6. susanniebur permalink*
    March 15, 2008 10:05 pm

    On the second point, I wonder if this need for clear identification of a recommended path is more urgent for women who may take time off, or work fewer hours, to care for young children for a few years. Surely the field is not so demanding that we still must choose one pathway or the other, for life.

    I also wonder, on point three, if this time requirement of significant experience on multiple missions unintentionally excludes those who also teach. What about those who thoroughly mentor graduate students? Those who do a form of service for a few years at Headquarters or with a Congressional committee or representative? Those who worked in industry?

    What about mission leadership requires such a narrow definition of experience?


  1. LPSC Prep « Women in Planetary Science
  2. NASA’s New Frontiers Announcement « Women in Planetary Science Blog

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