Reviewing the Senior Review

For most people outside the space industry, and maybe even some inside it, “senior review” sounds like some kind of final exam before graduation. For those involved in NASA science missions, the stakes are even higher.

Every two years, NASA reviews the status of those spacecraft that have completed their primary missions to determine if the science they can perform in an extended mission is worth the expense. That work involves months of writing proposals and making presentations, followed by anxiety about whether NASA will fund another two years of operations. But that process — or, at least, its frequency — might soon change.

The Space Studies Board of the National Academies is currently performing a study on NASA science mission extensions, with a particular focus on the senior review process. The final report, including any recommendations, won’t be done until September. However, the committee working on the study has shared some of the input it’s received from both NASA and those running its missions, with at least one clear theme emerging.

“Almost everyone seems to think the two-year cadence is too rapid,” said the study’s co-chair, Vicky Hamilton of the Southwest Research Institute, at the Academies’ Space Science Week March 29. The process, she said, is burdensome to both the mission teams that have to prepare proposals for review as well as on those who serve on review panels.

Saturn's shadow passes over its rings as the Cassini spacecraft looks on in this artist's concept. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Saturn’s shadow passes over its rings as the Cassini spacecraft looks on in this artist’s concept. NASA/JPL-Caltech

There are already a number of exceptions to the two-year review cycle. In the ongoing review of planetary science missions, NASA excluded Cassini since the spacecraft’s mission will end in September 2017 with a plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere. In NASA’s astrophysics division, Chandra and Hubble are treated separately from other missions, given there’s zero likelihood reviewers would recommend ending those flagship observatories.

Changing the frequency of the senior review process, though, would literally require an act of Congress. The 2005 NASA Authorization Act established the current process, calling for “biennial reviews” of extended missions. Hamilton said that former congressional staffers who worked on that bill acknowledged that their decision to require reviews every two years “was a bit of a WAG,” or wild guess.

Tom Hammond, staff director of the House Science space subcommittee, said later in the day that, in his opinion, Congress would consider any proposal to stretch out the pace of the senior reviews. “As long as any recommendation that comes out is justified, I think Congress would be open to that,” he said.

The committee seems willing to do that. “We need to come up with a cadence that we feel is appropriate, and defend that cadence in our final report,” Hamilton said.

That report will likely cover several other issues with the review process, such as harmonizing the review process across NASA’s four science divisions, and whether NASA is asking for too much information in proposals. But those issues about the senior review, she suggested, were secondary to their frequency. “Doing it every two years is the burden,” she said.