NASA managers are typically like old soldiers—they fade away once they leave the agency, discreetly joining aerospace companies, stepping into academia, or entering retirement. But Alan Stern's not going quietly. The former NASA science chief continues to blast away at the agency he resigned from this spring. In today's New York Times, Stern warns that "a cancer is overtaking our space agency." He rails against a program that is "running inefficiently" to the tune of $5 billion in overruns during the past five years—a crippling amount that roughly equals NASA's annual spending on science.
The result, Stern says, is the delay or abandonment of tomorrow's new missions to pay for today's spacecraft. Stern singles out the Mars Science Laboratory as the poster child for irresponsible spending, as he did in a recent letter to Science, because it will now cost more than $2 billion. The money being poured into the lab, slated for launch next year, puts plans at risk for an ambitious outer planets mission.
Who is to blame? Stern admits that he was in charge of the science effort, but insists he was "admonished and then neutered by still higher ups," a clear reference to his boss, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, "precipitating my resignation earlier this year." He maintains that the problem is rooted in Griffin's fear of angering members of Congress, who are more interested in protecting local jobs than ensuring taxpayers' money is well spent. He complains that NASA is guilty of "the coddling of errant projects" which encourages project managers to allow costs to rise.
Though Stern doesn't name names other than Griffin, agency officials say that his frustration is not just with his former boss. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, is famous for its world-class planetary missions as well as its retail price tags for these spacecraft—it is in charge of the expensive Mars lab—as well as its behind-the-scenes influence with the powerful congressional delegation from California.
Stern concludes that "this cancer is bad, but it is curable," and expresses hope that the new Administration of President-elect Barack Obama will be more willing to cancel projects that bust their budget. Stern's talk of change may resonate with Obama, who no doubt will be searching for a change agent to take over the space agency next year. Could Stern be auditioning for NASA's top job? His name is among a dozen mentioned for the position—stay tuned.