Anyone not living in a cave has heard that the elections in the United States have resulted in a more conservative Congress promising to reduce the federal deficit. Budget tightening in the United States is hardly unique. As the Wall Street Journal reported last summer, ESA may be facing its own budget problems, or at the least not growing its programs as fast as some would hope. (Subsequent news from Europe seems to suggest no ESA budget cuts in the short term.)
This blog is purposefully not political. If you want to argue politics, there are many good blogs and discussion boards for that. I will not discuss whether or not I think the federal budget should be cut. Rather, I want to explore the implications of some ideas that have been put out by newly ascendant Republican leadership.
One idea is to return the level of federal spending in 2011 to the level in 2008. The other is impose a freeze on discretionary spending (essentially anything other than interest on the federal debt and entitlements; military and security might or might not be included; without the military and security spending, discretionary spending is roughly 15% of the budget) for an unspecified number of years.
As I have done for previous analyses of budgets for future planetary missions, I have added up the budget amounts for future mission development and current mission operations. (This leaves out funds for scientific research and R&D.) I have then multiplied the current year budget by ten as an estimate of funding available for the next decade. This assumes that future budget increases match the inflation rate, and that funding for operation of missions that have yet to launch will be similar to funding for missions currently in flight. So, this is a fairly simplistic analysis that makes use of easily obtained public budget documents.
Here are some key budget figures:
FY08 ~$949M (approved) or ~$9.5 over a decade
FY10 ~$1.1B (approved) or ~$11.0B over a decade
FY11 ~1.16 (proposed) or ~$11.6B over a decade
The proposed FY11 budget has not been approved. The politics get murky at this point, but based on precedence, NASA's planetary program is likely to be funded in FY11 (Oct. 2010 to Sept. 2011) at about the FY10 rate. The difference over a decade would almost fund an additional Discovery mission at the fully burdened rate (or ~$800M which includes costs above the $450M available to the principle investigator).
If the budget is reduced to FY08 levels, then NASA's looses ~$1.5B over a decade compared to the FY10 budget level, or a bit more than the burdened cost of a New Frontiers mission.
If NASA's budget for future missions was frozen for a decade, NASA would lose about the equivalent funding of a New Frontiers program whether the initial level is at FY08 or FY10 budget levels. If the starting budget was the FY08 level and then frozen, then the result would be the loss of funding equivalent to approximately two New Frontiers missions compared to the FY10 budget level increased for inflation.
Editorial thoughts: In one important sense, this analysis is extremely simplistic. NASA has two major programs, the manned program and the unmanned science program of which planetary exploration is a part. (And even this is simplistic since it leaves out aeronautical research.) NASA's manned spaceflight program is at a crossroads. Meeting either the ambitious return to the moon goals of President Bush or the go to Mars via near Earth asteroids goals of President Obama requires high levels of funding. It is my observation that the manned side of NASA gets more political attention than the science side. It is quite possible that any budget cuts would not be applied equally to the two sides, and the net impact on future planetary missions may be greater than the quick analysis above suggests.
Planetary exploration is discretionary spending. Nations budget for it after they fund what they see as the core needs of their people. If the political process in the United States or elsewhere determines that spending levels must be reduced, I would not argue for special dispensation for planetary exploration. Rather, I hope that the program that will be recommended by the Decadal Survey will be flexible enough to remain viable if spending cuts do occur.