NuSTAR revived!

By Phil Plait | September 24, 2007 9:45 pm

I can hardly believe this: NASA has restarted and re-funded NuSTAR.

That’s the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope ARray, a small X-ray observatory. Back in my old job in California I was on the Education and Public Outreach (E/PO) team for NuSTAR, so I am very, very pleased it got the go-ahead — considering, after all, that it was canceled over a year ago! Obviously, there’s a story here.

What follows is my opinion based on events as I remember them. The Sonoma State E/PO group, NuSTAR team, and everyone else have nothing at all to do with my opinion… except that my opinion is right. :-) Let me also add that while I am saying things about one specific person at NASA below, I do not hold all of NASA accountable for her actions. Nor should you.

In 2003, NASA put out a call for proposals for SMEXs, Small Explorer missions (meaning the cost had to be kept under $120 million, minus launch). My group was tapped to do E/PO for five proposals, out of 36 submitted. NASA then went through the proposals, culled them, and picked five for further study. We were on two of those five. One was NuSTAR.

We worked very, very hard on those proposals, and I can only imagine what it was like for the folks actually creating the scientific and engineering justification for the missions. I wrote like a madman, trying to shine up and gloss the ideas batted around by our team (I suppose you could say I was the main writer, but everyone contributed substantially to the writing, and the ideas and such were a team effort). We worked it and reworked it, honing down the essays to fit in the frustratingly small space requirements for submission. But we were excited.

For one thing, the head guy for NuSTAR was (is!) Caltech astrophysicist Fiona Harrison, and if NuSTAR got picked she would become the first ever female Principal Investigator for a NASA mission. There were more women than men in our E/PO group, and I’m a bit of a feminist myself, so we were very sensitive to the idea of encouraging girls and women to learn about math and science. Plus, the mission is pretty cool: it would look for black holes across the Universe, which is always fun. As an added bonus, the spacecraft itself is cool, with a long, extending mast that will accordion out to a length of 10 meters after launch. All of this opens up lots of possibilities for educational efforts.

We submitted the proposal, and waited. Finally, NASA culled again, from five proposals to two. IBEX was one (and we were happy; a good friend of ours was running the education effort for it), and it was given the go-ahead to start cutting metal, as they say. NuSTAR was the other, but it wasn’t quite ready to go all the way, according to NASA. There were some issues that needed to be fixed, so they gave us more time to streamline the proposal.

Well, that’s better than being told "no", right? So we worked on fixing things up.

Then the bomb dropped. We were literally days away from submitting the re-worked proposal to NASA when we were told the project was canceled. That was bad enough… but then I found out that Fiona wasn’t called and told the mission she had spent years putting together was axed. She wasn’t even sent a letter. She found out when NASA had a press conference. Mary Cleave, then the Associate Administrator at NASA for the Science Mission Directorate, was chairing it. A question was asked about NuSTAR, and that’s when Cleave announced the mission was canceled.

This was an unimaginably shameful thing to do.

You can guess how we all felt. I cannot imagine how Dr. Harrison felt. Mary Cleave: not my favorite person in the world. I haven’t been shy about saying that, either (my favorite thing she did, in a dark humor way, was when she canceled the Dawn mission after testifying to Congress about science at NASA… but we get the last laugh; Dawn was also reinstated and is due for launch this week).

Well, after learning in such an awful manner that NuSTAR was canceled, we went on our way, and started in on the usual scrambling for more funding. We got some, we lost others; the usual story. I eventually left the group to pursue my writing career (which I suppose I am postponing writing such a long entry here!), and there you have it.

And then, out of the blue, NuSTAR is back! W00t!

I should have guessed. Mary Cleave left NASA (and there was much rejoicing), and Alan Stern took over. Alan is a scientist and I knew he would do what he could to make sure good missions got what they needed to proceed.

Looking at Alan’s record so far, I am very pleased. I wouldn’t take his job for a million bucks (really), but he is doing pretty well with balancing missions science with NASA’s tight budget (you can peruse the NASA category of my blog for more on how I feel about all that).

And now, NuSTAR is back! Even though I’m no longer on the team, it’s nice to see it. I worked hard on the E/PO proposal — I even wrote quite a bit for the website(s), which will no doubt have to be updated now — so of course I’m glad to see it going ahead. But I’m also really thrilled for Fiona, who deserves this… and maybe I’m happiest for NASA itself, because this shows that even when it makes bad decisions, wiser heads can figure out how to fix things.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, NASA, Science

Comments (20)

  1. Well now I’m jazzed about because you’re so jazzed about it. Dang jazz virus! Rock on, NuSTAR!

  2. Tiax

    Am I the only one that sees the penis?

  3. Bigfoot

    I’m always happy to see scientific missions get funded, since science money seems to be pretty scarce in these days of channeling all NASA money to the comparitively unscientific and unbelievebly expensive and dangerous goal of unilaterally sending humans to Mars.

    Long live NuSTAR, and all science missions past, present, and future!

  4. Niels Hovmöller

    Principle > Principal
    accordian > accordion

    Please correct before more people notice. (Your career is writing, isn’t it?)

  5. Chip

    Phil- I’m glad Dawn and NuSTAR came back but it would be nice if NASA had some guidelines regarding the approval or cancellation of projects – such as: A project that has been funded and is in planning for at least one month cannot be terminated without a meeting between all managers and staff involved and a full explanation. Or better words to that effect.

    P.S. – Niels Hovmöller – Regarding your comment: “Your career is writing, isn’t it?”
    It’s a shame your fastidiousness in editing isn’t tempered with a politeness that comes with maturity.

  6. Thorin

    @ Niels Hovmöller

    Good catches but as Chip pointed out there’s no need to be rude/snotty. Maybe you were just in a rush and hadn’t had your coffee yet.

    “Your career is writing, isn’t it?”

    Writing != editing or proof reading.

    Someone can defintely be good at writing while not being great with grammar hence book companies and newspapers employ editors.

  7. Brian

    Wonderful news, Phil.

  8. Tiax,

    Sometimes a nuclear spectroscopic telescope array is just a nuclear spectroscopic telescope array.

  9. AndreH

    PsyberDave: LOL!!

  10. JackC

    Rock on, Melanie Safka.

    Those who are old enough to know her will probably know what I mean. The others can use Google.


  11. Mek

    First off, FANTASTIC news! Any scientific of this sort I view as nothing less friggin’ grafting a new collective eye to the human species. No, I don’t mean that in an hocus-pocus metaphysics sorta way, I mean it in a real, “enabling all of us to see the universe across an even wider range of the EM spectrum” way.

    OK now that said, the shape of the spacescope is nothing short of ominous. It reminds of the shape of spacecraft in many of those Sci-fi stories where Bad word deleted by The Bad Astronomer goes down. NASA take note!

  12. |BrownCoat|[Ravi]

    Glad this program got revived, but no doubt many good programs have been axed. We should be more advanced regarding space technology IMO

  13. Irishman

    Another Able extendable cannister mast. Those things are cool.

    I got to see SRTM on the ground before the third mission. You think 10 m mast is fun, try 30 m.

  14. Tom Servo

    The shape. That’s an unlucky design.

  15. James Benet

    Your stated that, “if NuSTAR got picked she [Fiona Harrison] would become the first ever female Principal Investigator for a NASA mission”.

    Please be aware that many years prior to NuStar, Dr. Wendy L. Freedman, California-based Carnegie Observatories of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, was the principal investigator for the NASA Hubble Space Telescope “Key Project”. The goal of the Key Project was to accurately determine the value of the Hubble space constant. The Hubble space constant relates to the expansion of the Universe. The inverse of this number is the age of the Universe, 13.7 billion years.

  16. Bill Panczner


    I am the new E/PO Educator Ambassador for Nustar. The banner you are using. who has the original? I would like to use this. I am trying to put together a Nustar powerpoint for teachers. Did you do anything thik that, that I don’t know of?

    Bill Panczner

  17. Bill, congratulations! As I recall (it was a year ago!) I simply grabbed the banner off the CalTech site. Someone must have it; ask Aurore!

  18. Bill Panczner

    Thanks for the comments. I am a little different EA because I have a background in X-Ray while employed for GE/DOE/AEC in High X-Ray weapons development as one of their scientists. I was so pleased to be the EA for NuSTAR. I kind f feel at home. The group at SSU are a most interesting group and a pleasure to work with. I will check with Aurore. I am enjoying your latest book! Congrats on it.



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