Since I began this blog, the single biggest piece of news related to future planetary exploration has been the slip of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover from 2009 to 2011. As a result of this slip, NASA must now find ~$400M in additional funding for this mission. Unfortunately, a project deadline and travel have kept me from writing about this until now. I'm writing this at 37,000 feet (my apologies to readers in the rest of the world that uses sane units of measure; make ithat about 12,000 m) and lack access to a lot of my usual sources of information so much of this entry is from memory. Please send corrections as necessary!
NASA has stated that it will first look for the additional money in the Mars program and then in the planetary program (and presumably after that, the rest of the science program). The manned program is under severe budget pressure as it is, and I don't see how it can be a source of funds.
If I remember correctly, NASA is currently operating under a continuing resolution that funds it at 2008 levels. A supplemental funding bill for the entire government is expected next spring to reflect the new President's priorities. If such a bill occurs, it could provide part of the additional funds required. President elect Obama stated in his campaign that he favored providing NASA with an additional $2B, although with the implication that it was to cover funding shortfalls in the manned spaceflight program. It's also unclear whether that was to be a one time or annual increase. The current economic problems and other budget priorities make me skeptical that this will happen. The rest of this entry is written with the assumption that the MSL budget hit will not be solved by the Congressional cavalry coming to the rescue.
I did bring along a slide from a presentation to the last Planetary Science subcommittee meeting (in October, I believe). It lists the following budget percentages for the planetary program for fiscal year 2009 (the Mars program is not broken out separately); no total dollar figure is provided. All number I believe referred to funding before the MSL schedule slip required shifting amounts:
MSL – 17%
Juno Jovian orbiter (2011 launch): 20%
GRAIL lunar orbiter (2011 launch): 12%
ExoMars and Mars Scout 2013 (the MAVEN orbiter): 2%
Funding for ongoing missions: 25%
I'm sure that NASA will squeeze the research and ongoing mission funding, but these programs tend to be hard to squeeze too much from. The research budget funds things like salaries for scientists. If you don't fund scientists, they tend to leave the field and are not available in the future. Ongoing mission funding can be reduced by either reducing the complexity of operations (anyone like to reduce the number of Titan flybys that collect science in the next two years?) or by shutting off working spacecraft (anyone want to propose that it is time to turn off Spirit?). So, some money is likely to come from these sources but not much.
Notice that the two Mars missions after MSL (ExoMars and MAVEN) account for very little of the budget (2%). Missions normally are developed over approximately four year periods and the large funding amounts come in the last two years. So MSL will launch before either of these missions are likely to become big pools of funding.
That leaves Juno and GRAIL as the only large pools of money left in the planetary budget. I would not be surprised to see either or both these missions delayed (but cancellation is unlikely). The funding to continue their development after their currently planned launch dates may come from ExoMars and/or MAVEN.
All of this is a thought exercise meant to show the complexity of the problem of finding the money for the MSL slip. (Also see an article on this topic at Space News.) In reality, the entirety of the NASA science budget and options for shifting funds around with some slips to some missions (for example, slip an Earth observing mission six months so that MSL can make its every 26 month launch window) are mind boggling. NASA has extremely dedicated and creative managers who will find the way to optimize (that is, minimize) the pain felt across the entirety of the program.
Former NASA science head Alan Stern has criticized NASA for allowing the MSL program to become so large and in his words, mismanaged so that this problem occurred. The thoughts below are mine but come from some of what he has written on this issue.
Budget overruns are as old as large development programs. They appear to be the norm for government funded development, whether military or space across nations and eras. (I can tell you from my experience in private industry that they are common there, too). Management systems could be put into place to minimize their occurrence. Until that happens (I'm not holding my breath), cost overruns will continue.
In my mind, the real trade off is whether or not to undertake large, ambitious missions. Small missions can and do have cost overruns. They tend to be less ambitious, so the probability of large overruns is less. In addition, because they are inherently smaller programs, the impact of large overruns is smaller. It is much easier to absorb a 25% cost overrun on a $500M mission than a $1.5M mission. In addition, NASA puts a large emphasis on selecting missions in this category that are low risk while the entire purpose of large, ambitious missions is to tackle the hard to do but big payoff projects.
I do not want to see NASA stop doing large ambitious missions. However, the management change I would propose would be to establish a large mission budget line item, Only one of these flagship-scale missions will be in development at a time. As one mission completes, the development of the next mission can begin. If the current mission slips and/or goes over budget, the development of the next mission is delayed.
Smaller missions then would be funded out of a separate line item that would not be tapped to pay for overruns on large programs.
Implementing such a plan would be difficult. Often, overall costs could be reduced if the funding for an over budget large program could be increased by tapping other budget line items. These large programs also have a lot of visibility and organizational momentum. The natural tendency would be to protect these key large missions at the expense of smaller missions. However, I think that such an approach is more likely to succeed than one that tries to eliminate cost overruns. And, of course, any improvement in minimizing cost overruns makes the system work better no matter how the budget is divided between line items.