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Nicola Fox
Nicola Fox, named NASA associate administrator for science in February, says she is working to lower the boundaries to science at NASA while also dealing with budgetary challenges. (credit: NASA/Keegan Barber)

The opportunities and challenges for science at NASA and ESA

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Earlier this year, two women from the United Kingdom took over as leaders of the science divisions of the two largest Western civil space agencies just days apart. In late February, NASA announced it selected Nicola Fox as associate administrator for science after serving for several years as director of the agency’s heliophysics division. She took the post just days before Carole Mundell started on the job at the European Space Agency as its new director of science. She had been a professor of astrophysics at the University of Bath and chief scientific adviser for the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Both have opportunities and challenges in their new roles. At NASA, Fox is working to build on the success of many science missions, from the James Webb Space Telescope to smallsats, but is facing flat budgets and cost growth on some efforts, like Mars Sample Return, that is squeezing other projects. Mundell is also working to build on the success of recent ESA missions, like the April launch of the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) mission while working on others in development, like the Athena X-ray telescope, that have been struggling with cost overruns.

Both were in Florida this summer for the launch of Euclid, an ESA astrophysics mission with NASA contributions. They spoke separately, in interviews excerpted below, about their early months on the job and their plans for their agencies’ science programs in the years to come.

Fox: Daring mighty things, on budget and on schedule

How has the first few months on the job been?

Fox: It’s going great. It’s really, really busy, and very challenging, but it’s just a fabulous job. Certainly you feel the pressure from the responsibility that you have, because it’s not just one division now, it’s all of NASA science.

One thing I’m enjoying is having more exposure at the agency level: moving partnerships forward with the exploration directorate and human spaceflight, working with the space technology directorate, and even with aeronautics, where Earth science has a partnership on wildfires. I’m very excited about our Moon to Mars initiative and our CLPS [Commercial Lunar Payload Services] launches coming up at the end of the year with our commercial partners.

The budget challenges obviously are real, but they’re real every year because we always want to do more. You want to do more ambitious things and do more science. So, the budget challenges are there, but they’re there in every division too. We dare mighty things. And so, we’re daring mighty things and trying to keep them on budget and on schedule.

When you took the job, did you have any particular goals or objectives you set out to achieve?

For me, a lot of it is lowering the boundaries to access to NASA science, making it much more accessible to everybody. It’s about finding ways to get people excited about science. You don’t need to have a PhD to study science. You just need to like asking questions.

The budget definitely is the is the largest challenge. It’s just fitting everything into, as the administrator says, ten pounds of potatoes into a five-pound sack.

On the Science Mission Directorate side, it’s about growing the science and looking for ways that the divisions can work together. As we launch missions, do we have crossovers between planetary and astrophysics, crossovers between heliophysics and planetary? How can we get more science out of what we’re doing by getting more communities involved and engaged in science?

Besides the budget, what other challenges are on your radar?

The budget definitely is the is the largest challenge. It’s just fitting everything into, as the administrator says, ten pounds of potatoes into a five-pound sack. I definitely resonate with that. Otherwise, I think just keeping everything on schedule. We have a lot of things going on. There’s a lot of moving parts in the directorate of right now, particularly with CLPS and partnerships with industry. They’re all great, but just watching that everything’s moving ahead. And we’re trying to be ready for any hurdles that we might find.

Is there anything coming up you’re particularly looking forward to?

The thing I’m most excited about is “Asteroid Autumn.” OSIRIS-REx is returning the samples in September, so I’ll be out in the desert in Utah waiting for those samples to come back. I have almost a newfound respect for what you can do with samples, having been to Johnson Space Center recently and seeing the Apollo samples. The incredible equipment we’ve been able to design in the 50 years since the samples were taken to allow you to do more science. Then, a few weeks later we’re launching Psyche, our first mission to a heavy metal asteroid.

What is your impression of NASA’s partnership with ESA on science missions, and how would you like to see that evolve?

We have such a great partnership, and it really is just an amazing opportunity to do more science. For me, my whole goal is doing more science, getting more science into space. And so, when we can take advantage of a mission and this vital contribution that we’re able to make, it’s just a great opportunity. My big thing is when you can group your missions: you’ve got Euclid, and then Roman [the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope] is coming behind it in a few years. They’ve got overlapping science but different techniques. It just unlocks so much more science.

In heliophysics, you do something with one mission and you bring another one in. It’s almost like you ask all the questions that you didn’t know you wanted to ask and then you’ve got another mission that comes in and can help take a bite out of those questions.

Are there any lessons learned from heliophysics partnerships you’d like to expand to other science missions?

I’m not sure that that we need to expand the lessons learned. I’m very positive about the international partnerships and I’ve always really enjoyed doing that. In my mind, lessons learned tend to come from just doing more science with bringing in another mission, having a partnership with them, having access to the data, and really sharing the science results. I think it’s just something we want to continue doing.

Carole Mundell
Carole Mundell, ESA’s director of science, wants to maintain balance in the agency’s science programs out to the middle of the century while being agile enough to handle near-term challenges. (credit: ESA/P. Sebirot)

Mundell: keeping ESA’s science program strong

How has the first few months on the job been?

Mundell: It’s a great year for me. It’s incredibly busy, but it’s a huge privilege to start as director of science and do this all within six months. So, I take lots of congratulations for success and pass them straight on to the team because it’s not my congratulations to take. It’s a really exciting time and it’s also great that it’s fundamental science with all of our consortium collaboration partners and industry. The interest from the general public, I think, is also huge. It’s really humbling sometimes when you see incredibly clever people coming together to do something exciting.

When you took the job, did you have any particular goals or objectives you set out to achieve?

Coming in it was very clear to me that we have a very strong program. The way that it works for ESA is slightly different to NASA. Our budgets are laid out every three years at the ministerial, and the last was in 2022. We’re also slightly different from the rest of ESA in that we have mandatory programs. Science is the backbone of the agency, and therefore all the countries contributed an understood amount.

So, when I took up the post, it was very clear that we have a really strong and vigorous science program across a really diverse science space. I think one of the challenges is making sure I keep that program strong, that we grow it in a way that continues to maintain that balance across the program out to the 2040s and ’50s. I think the most exciting and the most scary bit is creating that vision for what people will be as excited about as they are today for Euclid in the 2040s and ’50s.

I think we do have to be agile, we do have to be flexible. We can’t assume that the world is stable and that the plan will go according to plan for decades.

I think the other part of it is international collaboration. For me personally, having worked in the Foreign Ministry in the UK, the world is a difficult and challenging place. We have geopolitics to manage. We have a climate crisis, and I think this kind of science inspires the next generation of young people who will come through and be inspired by Euclid science or JUICE science. They may not grow up to be astrophysicists—they may—but they may go on and solve climate change or chronic illness. They may grow up to be astronauts.

I think it’s such a thrilling and exciting program, keeping it safe managing it well, making sure it’s stable and inspiring for many generations, and then delivering it. It’s a very busy job bringing all of those things together.

What is the process of laying the groundwork for that long-term vision, for the missions you want to be flying in the 2040s and 2050s? How does it compare to the decadal surveys used by NASA?

The system is different, but there are some similarities. Every ten years there’s a process where we look at the next 20 years. We’re now getting towards the end, I would say, by the mid 2030s, of delivering the Cosmic Visions program. That includes big missions like LISA [Laser Interferometer Space Antenna] and finishing the scoping on New Athena, EnVision [a Venus orbiter], and medium and fast missions.

The successor to Cosmic Visions is Voyage 2050. My predecessor, Günther Hasinger, went through that process just a year or two ago. We now have a map of the kinds of mission themes that we will have and the kinds of mission sizes that we have. That, in some ways, is a nice basic blueprint for me to then engage with the science communities to see what big science questions we want to ask.

The big question we’re still trying to answer, obviously, is life off Earth. That doesn’t ever go away. The decadal review in the US will have a different way of approaching it to the way we will try to approach it in ESA. Then we might come together and contribute to one another’s missions.

The other way to look at this, which is something I’m also very excited about, is disruptive technologies. We tend to think of the science program as coming up with a big question for which the technology has not yet been invented, and then we work with our industry partners and our academic partners to invent the technology. But we also have a really strong technology component in the agency. So, looking at some of the very new emerging and disruptive technologies might also open up new windows on the universe that scientists haven’t yet thought they might ask a question around. I think that flipping it around is also something that’s really interesting.

NASA is a major partner with ESA on science missions. What sort of discussions have you had with Nicola Fox about strengthening, expanding, or otherwise changing that cooperation?

We didn’t know one another beforehand. We had a great bilateral in March, when I came over to speak at the National Academy of Sciences’ Space Week. We already have a number of missions that we’re cooperating on. NASA is providing an important component to the LISA mission studying gravitational waves. On EnVision, NASA will be providing the synthetic aperture radar; JPL is developing that. We’re looking to adopt that mission early next year along with LISA., if all goes well and the reviews are positive.

We are strong and long-term collaborative partners. We have slightly different communities. As I say, there are those big questions, but our communities have slightly different interests.

What sort of challenges are you facing, such as with Athena?

To be honest, that big challenges I see are sort of roundabout in the world. I mean, we’re juggling difficult geopolitical times. Obviously, we’ve had to adapt around the Russian invasion of Ukraine. So, I think we do have to be agile, we do have to be flexible. We can’t assume that the world is stable and that the plan will go according to plan for decades. We do this planning so you hope for the best but plan for the worst. You keep going and trying to inspire and say, let’s have a stable, prosperous, secure world where we can have the pleasure and the honor of dreaming about science and actually being able to do this.

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