Selecting New Science Missions

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Originally Published: Jan. 7, 2017

Sensing the environment of black holes and the origin of high-energy cosmic rays, exploring the early building blocks of the outer solar system, and a journey to the metal-world of a planetary core – these are the science investigations NASA announced this week, my first three selections as an Associate Administrator.

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Imagine sitting in a room for many hours and listening the the sales pitches of mission finalists. Each pitch is exactly an hour and highly regulated with respect to its contents and participants of the pitch. The team is nervous and worried, trying to interpret every move you make, where you look and second-guess what each question means that you ask. This is what I did during December – eight times over.

Selecting a mission is hard. It is all about the future, about the new science that will be learned. But it also about professional aspirations of some of the hardest working members of the entire science community, the investigators and their teams. Finally, it is about the intellectual and economic capacity of the US as a space-faring nation.

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I made selections resulting in three teams having the weeks of their lives, and others having bitter disappointments. I delivered all phone calls personally – to the winners and to the ones I had to give bad news. In all cases there were two things about which I was absolutely certain: First, the selections were done with the highest level of integrity and to benefit science and the US. Second, each call was made with my best attempt to directly relate to the principal investigator. As opposed to many others in my job previously, I too received many calls with bad news, and I too got a few good ones. Both, the good and the bad calls I received changed my life. The only reason I get to make these calls now is, ironically, due to the fact that I received three such negative calls approximately a dozen years ago. For me, sometimes the answers that were hardest to receive, had the most positive impact in my professional life!

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As for the selections announced this week – I only wish I had been able to select even more missions. Most importantly, can’t wait to see these missions become reality – this will be so exciting!

NASA press releases:

NASA Selects Mission to Study Black Holes, Cosmic X-ray Mysteries

NASA Selects Two Missions to Explore the Early Solar System