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July 7, 2011

Well, friends, I have some news.  Last week I presented a poster at the Low Cost Planetary Missions 9 Conference about the mismatch that I perceived between the NASA AO requirement for PI experience and the available experience out there in the community — particularly those who will be eligible to propose to the next AO.  I did a demographic study of all planetary scientists who have officially served in the positions of Principal Investigator (PI), Deputy PI, Project Scientist (PS), and Deputy PS on all planetary science missions selected since 1977.  Since only a portion of those were PI-led, I added all the instrument PIs for flagship, New Millenium, and other non-PI-led missions.

I counted ’em up.

That’s right.  Each and every one.

And what I found was a little surprising.

There are a good number of our colleagues who have served in the first four roles on planetary science missions selected since 1979.  But when you make one simple cut, almost all of them fall away.

I made a chart, plotting each investigator by Ph.D. year, and then removed the earliest degree years, those who were likely to be retiring at or before the next AO selection.  Now, before you get upset with me, let me caveat this by telling you how conservative this selection criterion was – taking a typical age of 28 at Ph.D., I selected only those who would still be under 65 by the time the next mission was selected.  With a four-year development period and strawman five year mission lifetime, this excludes only those investigators who will be 74+ when their spacecraft reaches its target.  I’m not saying they can’t propose.  Sure they can!  But bear with me for the sake of argument.  When you make that one simple cut, and exclude those PIs and deputy PIs (but not the others) with missions currently in development, a surprising thing happens.

Only 3 PIs, 11 PSs, and ZERO deputy PIs will be available and under 65 at the next mission selection.


Deputy PS adds another 11.  Instrument PIs add 16.  Co-Investigators?  50.

But the question is, what experience would NASA consider sufficient, as judged by the most recent and the standard AO?

The only written requirement for personnel seeking to win the role of PI is that his or her qualifications and experience be commensurate with the technical and managerial needs of the project; “the commitment, spaceflight experience, and past performance of the PI and of the implementing institutions will be assessed against the needs of the investigation.”

And if you haven’t held one of these documented roles before, how do you PROVE that you have the spaceflight experience and past performance?

I’m out on a limb here.  I know that.  I challenged the mismatch publicly at the conference last week, with nice results:

1. NASA has modified the Standard AO to now specifically evaluate the PI in conjunction with the PM and their team – a change that Carlos Liceaga announced at the panel that we served on on Thursday.  [MSNBC: Space on a budget balances risk vs. innovation.]

2. An article in Nature News, published both print and online this morning. [Nature: NASA faces dearth of mission leaders.]

But there’s another message that I hope this sends to scientists looking to become Principal Investigators one day —


2. Document it.  Whatever experience you have – as a super-involved Co-I, as a postdoc working with the Principal Investigator on a flight mission, as someone with instrument building experience – write it down and figure out how to make that part of your work shine on your bio when you submit your first proposals as a PI, Co-I, or Participating Scientist.  It’s your responsibility to prove to the evaluators that you’re ready.

And if you don’t have the experience yet to document? See #1.

This post was based on a paper accepted to the Low-Cost Planetary Missions 9 Conference and submitted to Acta Astronautica.

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 7, 2011 11:44 am

    fascinating, thanks Susan!

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