NASA official looks to the stars and back home again

Robert Price always had a keen interest in science but it was the ferocious late-1950s space race between the United States and the Soviet Union that honed his path to what has become a 29-year career at NASA.

When Price was in high school the two superpowers were maneuvering to be the first to send an unmanned aircraft into space. Now as associate director at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Greenbelt Md. for its Mission to Planet Earth (MTPE) Price leads the $1 billion-a-year program that launches unmanned spacecraft into space to record measurements that will eventually be stored in the world's largest database."I was in high school when Sputnik was launched " Price said. "The nation turned its attention to outer space and I was intrigued by that."

NASA he said was the logical choice to funnel his intrigue of science and space. He spent his first seven years at the agency as an astrophysicist but he remembers the exact moment when he began his career in Earth sciences.

"I remember feeling that space science was getting to be impractical when they started describing quarks as having charm and color " he said. "I said `These folks are getting way too out there for me and I want to get into something more practical.' In the 1970s when NASA made a conscious decision to turn its space-based assets back to looking at the Earth I thought that was a lot more satisfying and interesting."

In 1986 he became associate chief of NASA's Space and Computing Division.

Focus on EarthAfter that he served for four years as deputy director of NASA's Earth Sciences Directorate before being chosen in 1993 to be the agency's point man for MTPE NASA's contribution to the massive U.S. Global Change research project. As part of that program NASA already has launched two spacecraft one in 1991 and another in 1993. The first collected data from the upper atmosphere and determined definitively that man-made chemicals generated by industry had penetrated the Earth's troposphere and were damaging its ozone layer.

These two missions were the precursors to the Earth Observing System the centerpiece of MTPE. Scheduled to begin in 1998 the 15-year program will involve collecting 24 critical measurements of the Earth's changing climate.

Space gives Price and his team of scientists a unique vantage point to measure the state of the Earth's climate and any damage humans may have inflicted upon it. For Price this creates an overlap of his scientific exploration and his personal environmental concerns.

"[MTPE] demonstrates the significance of how space-based technology can contribute to our overall understanding of the Earth." he said. "As a private citizen I am concerned that humankind is doing things to Earth that are not in the best interest for its survival."

Beating Budget Pressure

Because MTPE is part of an agency facing budget woes Price is constantly challenged to push exploration to the limit while conforming to the financial constraints that have plagued the entire federal government. But Price said he has adapted the program and associated procurement projects to the challenges associated with agencywide government reductions.

For example Price practices what he calls "just-in-time procurement." To cope with the breathtaking speed of technological development he and his staff delay computer system purchases until the very last moment to take advantage of the "latest and greatest" technology at the most competitive prices. Space vehicle architecture has also been amended to comply with the financial constraints he said.

"It does put pressure on us " Price said of the tight budgets. "It does [create] the need to change the space architecture. We're now in the midst of downsizing our spacecraft. We've got to fly smaller because smaller translates into less expensive."

Despite the agency's burgeoning budget constraints Price said working for NASA remains an exciting endeavor. It has become even more so he said since the agency's recent discovery that primitive life may have existed on Mars. The discovery prompted NASA officials and the Clinton administration to start talking about reassessing the agency's future budgets perhaps igniting public and private interest in space exploration to the same fervor that in 1957 steered Price to NASA.

"The Mars discovery just puts a spark into NASA " Price said. "It gives it that extra excitement that it needs."


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