Jon Morse likes to make big things happen fast. After becoming director of NASA’s astrophysics program in 2007, in less than five years he helped the agency refurbish the Hubble telescope for a final time and launch a plethora of new, wildly successful mid-size space telescopes. At the same time, he oversaw the debut of NASA’s SOFIA airborne observatory and fought to restore funding to the agency’s Explorer missions program. All the while Morse envisioned a bright future for the agency in which it would rapidly develop and launch a broad variety of high-impact space science projects.

By 2011, it was clear this future wouldn’t be coming as smoothly and quickly as Morse had hoped. Instead of speeding up, NASA’s space science efforts seemed to be slowing down, curtailed by flat federal spending and multibillion-dollar cost overruns on missions such as the James Webb Space Telescope. As project after project was deferred or canceled and the agency’s portfolio of future missions shrank, Morse chose to walk away, leaving NASA for the private sector.

Morse is now the chief executive officer of the BoldlyGo Institute, which he co-founded with several other NASA veterans to break the government monopoly on major space science missions. Through a combination of philanthropic donations and crowdsourced funding, BoldlyGo intends to begin by building and launching two projects in the 2020s: SCIM, a Mars sample-return mission, and Astro-1, an innovative space telescope that would seek rocky worlds orbiting other nearby stars.

Scientific American spoke to Morse about his decision to leave NASA, BoldlyGo’s ambitious plans and how he hopes to revolutionize research on the high frontier.

[An edited transcript of the conversation follows.]

 

What is BoldlyGo?

The BoldlyGo Institute is a nonprofit research organization dedicated to doing cutting-edge space science missions. I formed it along with several others who have long histories of working with and at NASA, after realizing just how much great science NASA is unable to do because of resource limitations. At the same time, raising large amounts of money for large, exciting projects is increasingly possible out in the private sector. We believe there are compelling space science projects that can attract philanthropic support. We’re not trying to replace NASA. We’re here to expand the pie, to increase the total amount of resources available for space science.

“We’re not trying to replace NASA. We’re here to expand the pie, to increase the total amount of resources available for space science.”

When did you come to that realization?

Every 10 years the U.S. astronomy and astrophysics community comes together through the National Research Council to produce a “decadal survey,” an authoritative report prioritizing science goals and missions for the government to implement. When the 2010 decadal survey came out, we spent months putting together a plan for how to fulfill as many of its recommendations as possible, but it required asking for additional funding. A high-level budget official we were talking to just laughed and said, “Don’t even bother.” And they were not being snide—they were just recognizing a fundamental truth, that there was no more money available for us. That was a key moment for me, when I realized things had to change.

 

So this motivated you to leave NASA and try a different approach?

The mantra has been “flat is the new up” as far as space science budgets are concerned. Well, flat is not up. We should not just tuck our tails between our legs and say, “Okay, I guess that’s what we’re getting, and there’s nothing we can do.” I think there is something we can do!

NASA essentially has a 100 percent monopoly on major space science missions in this country, and the long-term policy has been that the budget for NASA’s space science, in aggregate, is flat. And that means a lot of tremendous missions—tremendous science—isn’t being done due to lack of opportunity. But we believe that philanthropic possibilities are now of the scale where all this can change. We’re not going to raise $5 billion per year—which is NASA’s science budget—but we could raise enough to add meaningfully to the space science portfolio. If we’re able to relieve the pressure just a little bit by doing some affordable frontier science, that makes it easier for NASA to focus on large projects that only it can do, even if it has a flat budget that isn’t keeping pace with inflation.

 

Tell me about the missions BoldlyGo has planned.

We have announced two: SCIM, the Sample Collection to Investigate Mars mission, and Astro-1, which is our placeholder name for a future space telescope. Right now we’re trying to raise funds for SCIM to make a summer 2020 launch date and for Astro-1 to launch later, in the early 2020s.

SCIM is a mission where we deliberately fly at a shallow angle into the Martian atmosphere during the dusty season and capture some of that dust in aerogel, then bring it back to Earth—all without going into orbit or landing. This builds on previous missions, like NASA’s Stardust mission that collected and returned cometary and cosmic dust in aerogel. We feel taking this approach for Mars would be scientifically very valuable, and SCIM would be the cheapest possible sample return mission we could do. We could analyze the returned dust on a molecular level to study Martian mineralogy and the planet’s past geological processes, and we could also get information about hazards the dust could pose for future human missions.

Astro-1 is a space telescope intended for the post-Hubble era. It’s at a more conceptual stage than SCIM. We’re currently planning for it to have a 1.8-meter-diameter primary mirror—Hubble’s mirror is 2.4 meters. Astro-1 is designed to restore and enhance many of the capabilities that the Hubble has that are not going to be addressed by next-generation observatories like the James Webb Space Telescope and the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope [WFIRST]. Those telescopes are optimized for infrared—they won’t go into the blue and the ultraviolet like Hubble can. So when Hubble goes, we could face a gap in our observations at those wavelengths. We’d like for Astro-1 to help fill that void.

“Taking this approach for Mars would be scientifically very valuable; SCIM would be the cheapest possible sample return mission we could do.”

So, a space telescope with a mirror smaller than Hubble’s and a mission to collect some Martian dust. Are these missions too modest to justify their existence?

These are modest missions but that doesn’t mean they can’t be transformative. We selected SCIM and Astro-1 because each one employs innovations that can greatly increase scientific impact while being affordable and avoiding many years of development time.

We’re prioritizing SCIM because it actually already has 10 years of technical work behind it, including a NASA-supported study. Its innovation is the spacecraft shape, which allows a novel mission profile. The spacecraft is shaped like an inverted ice cream cone, so it can fly through the Martian atmosphere while maintaining a slow roll for stability. That lets us collect samples without going into orbit or landing, which is a huge cost breakthrough because most everybody else is talking about doing Mars sample return by landing and drilling down beneath the surface. That’s a fine architecture but it will require many billions of dollars, and you just can’t do that philanthropically. Even NASA hasn’t committed to doing it; they’re instead pursuing it via incremental steps.

For space telescopes, a lot of people are pushing for something very large after Webb and WFIRST, pushing for a space telescope with a mirror at least 10 to 12 meters in size. You’re looking at a minimum of 15 years of development for something of that scale, and governments are the only entities that can possibly afford that. We think there’s breakthrough science that a modest observatory can do sooner—without relying on government resources so that NASA can focus on big things that only they can do.

Astro-1’s innovation isn’t its size, it’s the off-axis optical design, which means its primary 1.8-meter mirror isn’t obscured by a smaller secondary mirror, like in the case of Hubble. People have been talking about making an off-axis space telescope for over 15 years, and it just hasn’t happened. The off-axis design increases the collecting area and reduces the amount of scattered light contaminating your images. That will make it a wonderful platform for studying exoplanets in nearby star systems. If we secure funding and move forward as fast as possible, we believe Astro-1 could be the first to perform a reconnaissance of nearby stars for large rocky planets—certainly for gas giants. That would be a historic first—no one has done that before. And it could come soon from a modest facility.

“Astro-1 could be the first to perform a reconnaissance of nearby stars for large rocky planets.”

How much would these missions cost? Could you do them for less money than NASA could?

We intend to reduce costs by applying commercial techniques and streamlined processes to these missions. For example, we intend to pay the commercial price for our launch vehicle rather than the price the government pays. Having been on both sides of this, there is a substantial savings by doing the commercial approach. There are also ways to optimize the designs and manufacturing processes for each mission to reduce costs without compromising reliability. We think these sorts of programmatic innovations can result in double-digit percentage savings for each mission.

For Astro-1, we already have examples of commercial space telescopes that have been built and orbited, like DigitalGlobe’s Worldview-3. That’s a very sophisticated 1.1-meter observatory that was launched last summer to look down instead of up, delivering views of Earth. Many of the same commercial techniques and processes could be applied to Astro-1. For SCIM, which is more mature, including launch vehicle costs we expect it to be reliably less expensive than a NASA Discovery-class mission, the mission class to which it would be most comparable.

 

That means these missions would still cost several hundred million dollars. How does BoldlyGo plan to raise all that money?

Our goal is scientific research for both SCIM and Astro-1 but there are unique things both missions offer that we think could create some revenue—the artifacts that SCIM will bring back, for instance, and dedicated observing time on Astro-1. But none of that would generate enough funds to pay for these missions. In the absence of a commercial product to sell we need high-end donors, without question—individuals with very deep pockets who love science and want to help accelerate discoveries.

But all scales of donations are important. For example, the first thing we want to do for Astro-1 is to assemble an Astro-1 Requirements Team to hone and polish the project’s science and technology requirements. We call it The ART. Its expenses are modest—covering travel costs, venues for a meeting and the production and dissemination of a final report. Even small donations can have a meaningful impact on moving something like The ART forward.

What is certain is that the scale of these projects means we can’t do them all with crowdfunding, though crowdfunding can play a role. We’d like to use crowdfunding as a tool for increasing our public engagement because there are very interesting ways for people to become involved with these missions.

 

Such as?

Well, for Astro-1, much of its observing time will be used for institutional partners that buy in or contribute instruments, but we want to make sure there’s access for amateur astronomers, too.

We hope to make something like 100 spacecraft hours available each year to the amateur community—that’s equivalent to what’s called a “large” program on Hubble, which is very highly coveted among professional astronomers. So this wouldn’t just be about getting pretty pictures; that time could be used for all sorts of important research. We want amateurs included in our planning process so we can understand how they as a community would like to use that time—should it be one big 100-hour project the whole community coordinates on, or should it be 100 one-hour projects?

We would also like to make partnerships with individual scientists on Astro-1, who can buy in to the project and receive guaranteed telescope time for roughly the cost of a normal research grant. They can raise the money anyway they want—they could get it from their research institution, they could crowdfund it, they could just write a check from their bank accounts. And if you and several collaborators each buy in, well, you could pool your observing time—and all of a sudden large, multiyear programs like those for Hubble and other major space telescopes can organically emerge.

 

Assuming this all goes according to plan, and SCIM and Astro-1 are flying in the 2020s, what would you like BoldlyGo to pursue next?

Once this alternate funding model becomes a normal part of the space science ecosystem, we’d want to continue adding to the portfolio in a constructive way that does high-impact frontier science. Astro-1 is just a provisional designation that we hope will be renamed closer to launch, but we hope there will be an Astro-2 and an Astro-3, each devoted to something that is scientifically compelling, technologically feasible, publicly appealing and affordable. And, after SCIM, there are many other possible planetary science projects. We’re also interested in the prospects that small satellites such as CubeSats offer for enabling certain types of low-cost investigations and exploration.

Right now there are many scientifically compelling, technologically ready mission concepts, and few that are actually flying. There are so many opportunities out there that just aren’t happening due to resource limitations. We’re eager to change that and we’re excited to talk with scientists globally about what to do next.