WASHINGTON — In Washington, it almost seems radical — completing government projects at their original budgeted cost.
A Kepler mirror inspection.
One project S. Alan Stern reined in was the Kepler mission to launch a planet-hunting telescope.
Yet at NASA, the new director of the space science division appears to be making headway at doing just that, creating some anguish among researchers and contractors along the way.
In his eight months on the job, the director, S. Alan Stern, has turned back almost a half-dozen requests for more money from projects experiencing cost overruns, he said. That has forced mission leaders to trim parts of their projects, streamline procedures or find other sources of financing.
Dr. Stern, an astrophysicist and planetary scientist, became associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in April. In an appearance before Congress the next month, he outlined a tough plan for keeping missions on budget and holding leaders responsible: better cost-estimating tools to more realistically price missions, more experience for scientists running projects, and new studies to better understand and reduce technology risks.
NASA devotes about $5.4 billion a year to its science program, divided among specialties like astrophysics, earth science and planetary exploration. To finance President Bush’s exploration initiative to return humans to the Moon, while also financing space shuttle operations and a shuttle replacement out of the agency’s approximately $16 billion annual budget, science program money is being held to about a 1 percent increase per year for four years.
Factoring in inflation and the loss of what had been anticipated financing increases, space experts say this amounts to a loss for NASA science of about $3 billion over that period. For Dr. Stern, that means doing more with less.
One of the first targets in his effort to attack cost overruns was the Kepler mission, a project started in 2001 to launch a planet-hunting telescope. Because of management problems, technical issues and other difficulties, the price tag went up and the launching date slipped from the original 2006 target.
In 2006, NASA resolved itself to a 20 percent cost overrun, which raised the price to $550 million, and accepted a 2008 launching time. Then the Kepler team came to Dr. Stern last spring with a request for an additional $42 million.
“Four times they came for more money and four times we told them ‘no,’” Dr. Stern said.
After Dr. Stern’s team threatened to open the project to new bids so other researchers could take it over using the equipment that had already been built, the Kepler group came up with a solution. Among other measures, the duration of the four-year mission was cut by six months and preflight testing was scaled back.
“When they came to believe I was serious and had my boss’s backing,” Dr. Stern said, “they took it seriously. They quickly found a way to erase that bill.”
Dr. Stern, 50, came to NASA from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., where he directed the Space Science and Engineering Division. His hard line on cost overruns has been one of the first signs of change noticed by researchers and many outsiders. So far, he said, his team has rolled back cost overruns in almost a half-dozen projects, sending out word that this is now standard procedure.
“I admire what he’s doing,” said Dr. Lennard A. Fisk, professor of space science at the University of Michigan and chairman of the Space Studies Board at the National Academy of Sciences. Dr. Fisk, who headed NASA’s science directorate in the 1980s, said true reform required a cultural change at the agency in how it runs programs. And a director must be consistent, he said, to convince people of the seriousness of the effort.
“In the beginning, he has to be hard-nosed with everybody,” Dr. Fisk said. “The first one he blinks on could be a problem. He has to maintain his credibility.”
Dr. Stern said that when he took the job, he told the NASA administrator, Michael D. Griffin, that he planned personnel and policy changes in his division to make the most of a stagnant budget while continuing to sponsor world-leading space science. He noted the appointment of Dr. John C. Mather, a Nobel laureate, to the vacant post of chief scientist in the directorate as a sign that science, not just launching spacecraft, would be the chief focus.
“We’re just not walking around swinging the ax,” Dr. Stern said. “We have a very new team that, I hope, is changing the way we do business.”