For the last several years, I've examined NASA's planetary program budget proposals to learn where it invests and how much its fully burdened costs for missions appears to be. This is roughly the equivalent of looking through a business' annual statement to try to understand its operations and financial position (for example, to try to decide whether it might be a good stock investment). There are always lots of hard concrete numbers, but you always have to make some assumptions. Some of those turn out to be wrong, hopefully by a small amount but sometimes by a meaningful amount. That's why the some of the assumptions embedded in the spreadsheet behind this post are almost certainly wrong, but the larger picture should be approximately right.
In this post, I'll summarize the key findings of my analysis. For readers interested in the assumptions, I'll post those as a comment. Since my detailed assumptions are likely to be wrong to some degree, I will give ballpark figures here.
Since the release of the Decadal Survey, I've gone back to re-examine the budget outlook presented in the FY12 NASA budget proposal. The proposed budget for FY12 supports all missions in flight, in development, or committed. Starting in FY13, however, budgets are projected to decline. At the presentation releasing the Survey's recommendations, Steve Squyres (the Survey's chair) stated that given the out year budget projections, NASA would not be able to develop Flagship class missions in the coming decade.
Adding everything together, I estimate that missions in development and committed would cost somewhat more than $3B, leaving something more than $6B for additional missions. Assuming two additional New Frontier and two additional Discovery missions, that leaves $1-1.5B to apply to an additional mission. To account for any costs I missed, I rounded down to $1B. Depending on whether or not future budgets are increased to adjust for inflation, this remaining funding wedge might be lost to inflation.
This remaining approximately $1B could fund an additional Discovery mission. However, this could be the seed money for a Flagship class mission -- presumably a 2018 Mars rover mission with ESA. About another $1.5B in additional funding would be needed, or a total increase in the budget of about 15% over the coming decade. (Maybe 20% to cover the simplifying assumptions I had to make.)
Steven Squyres emphasized in his presentation Monday night that all budgets beyond the current year are 'notional' and subject to change through the political process. If we as the community that cares about planetary exploration want to see a Flagship mission from NASA in the coming decade, we need make the case to our politicians to increase the planetary budget by 15-20% above the plan presented in the FY12 budget. We would not be asking for large budget increases. Adding this money to the budget would result in a significantly smaller budget than if FY12 funding were to continue for the coming decade (the difference could fund a second Flagship mission). The Planetary program still would share the pain of reducing Federal deficits.
I believe that the case for a Flagship mission in the coming decade is compelling. I think this is a case we can and should make to the politicians.
Note: If any readers have better budget estimates than I used, contact me and I will post them.