Findings & Concerns

Meeting of December 11, 1996
Sounding Rocket Working Group
National Aeronautics and Space Administration

1. The "Near Term" and Present Situation

The Sounding Rocket Working Group is alarmed by the sudden loss of significant numbers of persons from the Wallops Flight Facility work force with considerable expertise concerning scientific payloads, launch vehicles, and sounding rocket project management. It is also disconcerting to see large numbers of young engineers and technicians leave Wallops for jobs in other NASA centers or in industry.

We urge the NASA/Wallops Flight Facility management to develop policies to ensure that the needed technical and managerial expertise and "know-how" at Wallops, which is vital to the continued success of the program (even under a GoCo arrangement), will remain at sufficient levels to satisfy the agency's commitment to a healthy and robust sounding rocket program. We are particularly concerned that this loss of expertise could result in a decrease in the mission success rate in the future.

2. Government-owned, Contractor-operated Operations

The Sounding Rocket Working Group is committed to helping the transition process of the current rocket program to a government-owned, contractor-operated ("GoCo") arrangement, and has provided input to Wallops' GoCo transition and "statement of work" teams at its last two meetings. Despite this, we remain deeply concerned about how well the GoCo arrangement will actually run NASA's sounding rocket program.

The Sounding Rocket Working Group strongly believes that the new GoCo arrangement should be as cost effective, flexible, timely, and "all encompassing" as the present program, whose record of achievement is exemplary within NASA. Chief among our concerns are the following:

(a.) Costs and Flight Rates

Recent, high level programmatic reviews have concluded that the sounding rocket flight rate should be maintained near the current level of 30 flights/year (with the current average mix of mission complexity) in order to ensure the cost-effectiveness of the program and to maintain its viability within the science community. Anticipating that the GoCo arrangement may be very costly, we are concerned that the flight rate will therefore decrease significantly as will the science-per-dollar research return of NASA's investment.

(b.) Maintaining flexibility and innovation

Flexibility and innovation have been traditional hallmarks of NASA's sounding rocket program and are facilitated by the close partnership between the scientist (P.I.) and the Wallops engineer/technician teams. The Working Group is concerned that anticipated contractor requirements for: (1) technical specifications that are locked in at project initiation, (2) increased paperwork, and (3) rigid time schedules, such as one encounters in satellite programs, will leave little room for innovation and change, and thus are the surest way to create a mediocre experimental science program.

We recommend that NASA management vigorously pursue ways to prevent such a situation from occurring by structuring the new program to instill the present standards of performance, cost effective informality, and common sense "partnering" between the scientist and contractor.

(c.) Remote campaigns

An important ingredient of the sounding rocket program is its ability to conduct low cost scientific experiments at all latitudes -- whether it be space physics missions at high (e.g., aurora) and low latitude (e.g., magnetic equator) sites, or astronomy missions which observe southern hemisphere celestial targets in Australia. The success of such remote campaigns has relied on decades of experience of Wallops personnel who have planned, managed, and carried out highly successful programs at distant launch sites, often under adverse conditions.

The Working Group emphasizes the need for the GoCo contract to maintain the capability to carry out such remote campaigns at low cost so that this unique and vital aspect of NASA's scientific program is not lost.

(d.) New Technology

In addition to its main activities of designing, building, testing, and launching scientific payloads, an important element of NASA's sounding rocket program has included the development of new sub-system technologies and vehicle systems that subsequently engender a large number of experimental requirements. Examples include innovative recovery systems of upper atmospheric air samples, the Black Brant XII vehicle, and very high rate telemetry systems (see Item 4(a) below).

The Working Group urges the new program structure to include a cadre of civil servant engineers and technicians, free from the profit incentives that typically govern short- and medium- term business decisions, that may continue to explore and develop innovative and appropriate new technologies that are responsive to the evolving scientific requirements of the experimenters.

(e.) Escape valve

The Sounding Rocket Working Group has been informed on numerous occasions that the GoCo arrangement will contain an escape valve, and that provisions will be included so that if the new operating system does not work, the agency would then be able to recover the essential elements of the previous arrangement. The loss of critical Wallops personnel as noted above, however, raises grave concerns that the agency's critical expertise is quickly eroding in the areas of design, fabrication, testing, and launching of scientific payloads on sounding rockets and that this situation could thus prohibit a return to a program as robust and innovative as the current one.

The Working Group feels strongly that including the escape valve mechanism is a prudent and wise measure to be incorporated in the plans to transition to a GoCo arrangement. The importance of this is underscored by the fact that NASA's Sounding Rocket program provides unique scientific capabilities that virtually do not exist anywhere else in the world. Fearful that the escape valve check may be lost in the transition shuffle and contract negotiations, we recommend that a formal review committee be convened after an appropriate interval (e.g, 1-2 years) to evaluate the impact of the new system on the scientific yield and performance of NASA's Sounding Rocket program.

3. Funding at NASA Headquarters

Aware that funds are tight within the government and that all programs are being asked to undergo "belt tightening", the Sounding Rocket Working Group is highly concerned about the stewardship of the sub-orbital budget at NASA Headquarters, particularly since major portions originate from sources other than Code S (Space Science).  (For example, operational support from Code O is a critical element of the sounding rocket program, amounting to approximately $10M/year.)

Given the changing fiscal environment of NASA, it is apparent to the Sounding Rocket Working Group that a clear plan is needed to detail how the necessary funds will be identified and maintained to ensure the success and vitality of the sounding rocket program in the future.

4. Technical presentations

The Sounding Rocket Working Group was impressed by the technical presentations made by the Wallops personnel and expresses its appreciation to all of the speakers. We offer the following comments:

(a) The fact that a 10 Mbit/s telemetry system will now be a "standard" option for experimenters represents the fulfillment of a long sought goal. This report is thus gladly accepted by the Working Group on behalf of the scientific community.  For a large class of experiments, such high rates can be immediately and directly related to the yield of new scientific discoveries.  Not only does the 10 Mbit/s rate represent significantly higher telemetry than the now standard 800 kbit/s rate, but also it is higher than that of most scientific satellites.

The Working Group congratulates the engineers and technicians at the Wallops Flight Facility for this achievement.

(b)  Including GPS receivers to obtain positional data is a new way to provide trajectory data and may eliminate the need to send high powered radars on remote campaigns, as well as consolidate operations at existing ranges.

We are pleased with the successful follow on demonstrations of the GPS receivers on recent flights from White Sands and look forward to the results of detailed comparisons between the GPS-derived trajectories and those obtained from traditional C-band radars.

5. Appreciation

The Sounding Rocket Working Group expresses its sincere appreciation and deep gratitude to Mr. Ray Pless and to Mr. Warren Gurkin, who have managed the program so well over the past decades and who will be retiring in early 1997.  The sounding rocket program that they have helped create has enabled unique scientific achievements to be carried out in space, reflecting highly on both NASA and the United States.  We acknowledge their tremendous expertise regarding sounding rocket systems and thank them for their untiring dedication to the program.

Further, the Sounding Rocket Working Group acknowledges the Wallops Flight Facility as a whole for the exceptional job it has performed in the past year despite the stresses caused by frequent management shifts, re-organizations, and the uncertainty surrounding the GoCo arrangement and the future of the rocket program itself.  The scientific community owes a real debt of gratitude to the men and women of Wallops for their hard work and dedication.


NASA Sounding Rocket Working Group

Dr. Robert F. Pfaff, Jr. (Chair)
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Dr. Fletcher Miller
NASA/Lewis Research Center

Prof. Paul D. Feldman
Johns Hopkins University

Prof. Wilton T. Sanders, III
University of Wisconsin

Prof. Timothy J. Kane
The Pennsylvania State University

Dr. Alan Stern
Southwest Research Institute

Prof. Paul M. Kintner
Cornell University

Dean and Prof. Roy B. Torbert
University of New Hampshire

Dr. Clarence Korendyke
Naval Research Laboratory

Prof. Edward C. Zipf
University of Pittsburgh

Prof. Miguel F. Larsen
Clemson University