The Planetary Science Subcommittee met recently (this is an advisory board to NASA) and has posted the notes of its meeting at http://www.lpi.usra.edu/pss/report/nacReportOct2008.pdf. I found the following summary of the discussion with Dr. Weiler, head of the NASA science program, interesting for its analysis of problems facing MSL and future funding directions and challenges for the planetary program as a whole.
Dr. Weiler shared some of his thoughts on MSL. He noted that SMD found ways to fund the last overrun with almost no impact to other programs. However, there are no further sources of money. Some budget estimates expect the problem to be $120M - $150M. Delaying the MSL mission is one option. Although there would be additional cost (beyond the overrun) for a delay, the Directorate could save money in 2009. The other option is to cut missions and go ahead with MSL in 2009. The decision cannot be delayed until January. Dr. Weiler stated that any philosophical thoughts that the Subcommittee could give the Directorate would be appreciated. About one-third of the funding problem could be solved painlessly by JPL reducing its carryover to one month. He emphasized that the JPL team working on MSL could not be pushed to the brink of making mistakes. JPL must convince NASA management that it has a solid plan to make the launch. Best case (a delay, use of carryover funds, and other savings), the impacts to the rest of the Planetary program would probably mean delays to schedules and AO’s, rather than cancellations. R&A is not on the list as a funding source—should it be? Dr. Weiler stated that his number one concern on MSL is risk—successful launch, landing, and science return. An important question is whether this mission will make a major science impact on the public as well as the science community. The present MSL experience argues even more strongly for a series of moderately-scaled missions leading up to a MSR mission. The next decadal study will evaluate Mars along with the rest of the program.
With respect to the future NASA budget, there has never been a period before where there have been so many unknowns. Congress has taken the necessary action that will allow NASA to have the option of using Soyez instead of keeping Shuttle going. The science budget, at worst, should remain stable. The public sees the science side of NASA very positively, and there are some strong advocates on the Hill. If there is any new money, Earth science is probably in the best position for an increase. With respect to Europa or Titan, an Outer Planets Program should be established. ESA is on board and wants to participate in every mission; however, international collaboration should not complicate the program. Rather, it should get NASA and the science community more money or more science. The interfaces should be clean. Mr. McCuistion noted that an ExoMars collaboration has been on-going for the past four years and there is an excellent international community. For MSR, it is even larger—a twelve-nation membership as well as a bilateral engineering association. The international collaborations on Mars are very strong. Realistically, collaboration will be necessary on any MSR mission. With respect to lessons learned on MSL, Dr. Weiler mentioned several: early investments are crucial and standing review boards are very important; extended Phase A’s and Phase B’s may be advisable; “faster, better, cheaper” may not be the best approach for large missions. In addition, the entire philosophy of how missions are funded may need to be re-examined.