NASA officials made the first presentation of the impact of the FY13 budget proposal before the Planetary Science Subcommittee, which is charged with providing outside advice from the scientific community to NASA's planetary program.
The posted presentations and the press accounts suggest a contentious discussion.
Dr. James Green, head of the Planetary Sciences Division presented the administration's proposal. The major "news" is already well known: The budget requires cancellation of NASA's participation in a joint Mars program with Europe and cannot support a Flagship mission to the outer planets. In place of these is a new, smaller Mars program to be funded by NASA's Human Exploration program, technology development program, and the science program.
Dr. Green's summary slide on budget proposal
His presentation included a few new details not found in the budget documents:
- The competition for the next New Frontiers (NF4) mission will begin in FY16 with an expected launch around 2023
- The competition for a new Discovery mission (Discovery 12 after the selection of Discovery 12 this summer) will begin in FY15 with a launch around 2020
Separately, SpaceNews reports that the cuts proposed for next year's budget in the outer planets program largely will be used to begin planning the new Mars program and developing technology. (By my reckoning, the remaining funding covers operation of the Cassini mission and limited planning for future Flagship missions that would not begin in this decade.)
Editorial Thoughts: As a civil servant, Dr. Green's job is to support the President's proposal and then implement the program passed into law through Congress' funding bills. Having had to deliver unpleasant plans of record myself, I don't envy him his task.
It's clear from the presentations from the different Analysis Groups (there's one for each solar system destination) and press accounts that the scientific community does not agree with this new budget. They point out that it does not support the recommendations from last year's Decadal Survey report. While the report called for missions to Europa if the joint Mars program could not be funded, the President has proposed a smaller and still undefined Mars program instead. While the report called for selecting five new Discovery missions in the coming decade, at the pace supported by the budget it will be only two after the selection this summer. While the report called for selecting two new New Frontiers missions after the selection of the OSIRIS-REx mission last year, it appears that only one may be selected.
When I started this blog, I decided to make it a source of information rather than of advocacy since there were several groups for the latter, both of professional scientists and citizens. Suffice it to say, I don't agree with this budget proposal. From the press articles, neither does the scientific community nor, most importantly, several Congressmen who will have considerable influence over the final budget.
I will go out on a limb and make a couple of predictions. First, I think Congress will restore some, but not all of the proposed cuts to the planetary budget. The additions will be too small and too late to restart the joint program with Europe or to begin an outer planets mission. Rather, they may be used to make the new Mars program more robust. (The current projected budgets past FY13 back load the program, potentially making it hard to fund a robust 2018 mission.) Alternately, they may support a higher flight rate for New Frontiers and Discovery missions.
Second, I suspect that the joint Mars program with significant funding from the Human Exploration program may be short lived. A proposal of this type seems to come up every few years, and then fizzle out. We did get the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the LADEE mission from what was to be the first of many robotic missions to prepare for manned missions to the moon. However, last year's proposed joint program died quickly when it was still only on paper. A manned mission to the moon, an asteroid, or Mars is far off and in the meantime the Human Exploration program is under funded for its current projects.
My take on the proposed new planetary program -- a new Mars program and reduced Discovery and New Frontiers programs -- is that it is the first cut at a plan in a much smaller planetary program than we had expected two years ago and even last year. There hasn't been time to work with Congress and the scientific community to develop and build consensus around a new plan. The budgetary assumptions underlying the proposals in the Decadal Survey have gone away. Much of the analysis from the Survey can be used to develop the new program.
Some interesting questions that might addressed in developing the new program might include:
- Should Mars be the focus of a dedicated portion of the budget? Should another target be the focus instead? Or should there be no focused target?
- If there is a dedicated program to Mars, how large should it be in relationship to the New Frontiers and Discovery programs? Fly more missions to Mars or fewer to Mars and more to other targets through a higher mission rate for the New Frontiers and Discovery programs?
- If there is a dedicated program for Mars, what should be its compelling vision to replace the previous follow the water and the current follow potential habitable sites?
- Should the list of target missions for New Frontiers be revisited? No missions are on the list for any of the icy moons because the Decadal Survey assumed a Flagship mission would be flown to either Europa or Uranus and its moons. Now that those missions are out, should an icy moons mission be put on the list?
- If the budget will support only a New Frontiers mission and a half or so each decade, should the flight rate be reduced to one, larger mission per decade? A single flight per decade could probably fly one of the new smaller Flagship missions under study to Europa or a similar class mission to Titan and Enceladus.
PSS presentations: http://www.lpi.usra.edu/pss/
Good articles with more background:
SpaceNews: NASA Raids Outer Planets Budget To Fund Fast Start on Mars Reboot
SpaceFlightNow: Mars, Europa missions battle for scarce NASA funding
SpacePolicyOnline: Mars Shaping Up as NASA Budget Battleground
SpacePolitics: The Mars skirmishes continue