Thursday, January 31, 2013

Sequestration and Planetary Exploration

I’d hoped that I’d never need to write this post.  The latest news in the United States is that a poison pill known as the Sequester is looking increasingly likely.  If it happens, it will be a body blow to NASA’s planetary science program.

First, a bit of background.  The two political parties in the US have been fighting over how to reduce the federal government’s budget deficits, but have been unable to reach a compromise.  To enforce discipline, they passed a law that would require an 8.2% cut to all discretionary federal spending including the NASA budget.  The cuts were considered so arbitrary and onerous that it was thought that the two parties would work to find a compromise.  Numerous news articles are reporting that Congressional leaders are coming to accept that the sequester will happen; arbitrary and onerous apparently seems more acceptable than compromise.

In this post, I’ll look at what the sequester, due to take effect March 1, might mean to NASA’s future planetary exploration.  I want to emphasize that NASA’s managers have properly been all but silent on how they plan to implement the cuts if they come (with one exception noted below).  This post will illustrate the magnitude of these potential cuts.

I don’t know the details of the sequester law.  For example, does every program within every agency have to be cut by the same amount?  It appears not, because NASA’s managers have publicly stated that the James Webb Space Telescope’s budget will be spare the impact of the sequester.  (Rightly so.  Delaying launch would mean substantial increases in the costs to complete the telescope.)  If NASA protects some programs, then the cuts that would have been applied to them will have to be borne by increased cuts to other programs.

Already budgeted cuts to NASA's planetary mission budgets.  R&A is Research and Analysis, which supports the scientific research community.  From this presentation.

After two years of small budget increases (inflation plus a little), the President’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2013 imposed a 20.6% cut to the planetary program.  (Congress hasn’t passed NASA’s FY13 budget, and so the program is operating based on the President’s proposal.)  The sequester cuts would be in addition to the already planned cuts.  Those planned cuts forced NASA to drop out of a joint Mars program with the Europeans, ended any chance for now of a mission to Europa, and reduced the planned rate of Discovery (~$500M) missions from several a decade to one.

One challenge to looking at how NASA might further cut the planetary program if the sequester happens is that we don’t know how much of its overall budget it will protect.  NASA’s top three priorities are operation of the space station, developing its next human spaceflight system, and completing the James Webb Space Telescope.  Given this, I guessing that the minimum cut for planetary science might be the 8.2% and the maximum might be double that (i.e., NASA protects half of its budgets for programs it considers higher priority).  In dollar terms, here’s how that would break out:

FY13 budget

NASA’s planetary program basically does just four things: develops technologies to enable the next generation of missions, develops missions, operates missions, and supports research to study the data returned from missions.  NASA divides these activities between several budget lines (see the first chart), but I went through the FY13 budget proposal and combined funding across budget lines into these four categories (plus a small, everything else category).  I’ve sure I missed some items and perhaps combined some items that shouldn’t have been.  In broad outline, however, I think the budget figures below should be about right plus or minus some.

So, let’s start with the big picture (click on any image for a larger version):

Approximate FY13 budget by type of activity.

One obvious option would be to simply spread the cuts across all the planetary programs (the ‘spreading the peanut butter’ approach).  This, however, likely would mean that some missions in development would slip (is there, for example, a good backup asteroid to the rare type planned to be sampled by the OSIRIS-REx mission if its launch were slipped?).  Missions budgeted beyond their initial lifetime (and budgets) operate on fairly lean extended mission budgets and further cuts can mean operating with very lean staffs meaning that mistakes are more likely and data collected doesn’t get properly analyzed.

The managers of the Cassini mission detailed the impact of further cuts on that mission in a presentation last spring.  Cuts to other operating missions likely would have comparable effects.  From this presentation.

If the sequester were the first cut to the planetary science budget, some version of the peanut butter approach might work.  However, the sequester on top of the FY13 cuts could add up to as much as 30% or more in cuts in a single year.  The post-sequester budget also becomes the new baseline budget for developing future budgets.  NASA would have to live with this cut in following years.

At some point, it’s better to cut entire missions so that the remaining missions can be done well.  So, what might be cut?

 FY13 proposed budget for missions development

FY13 proposed budget for mission operations

There’s not a mission in the list that I would want to see cut.  To save tens of millions of dollars in costs, some big mission would have to be cut (cutting the Messenger mission, for example, just doesn’t save much).  

I will leave it to each of you to pick which cuts you find least terrible.  Should the Discovery program, and it’s just selected next mission, the Mars Insight geophysical station, be ended?  Should the Cassini mission be terminated?  Should NASA cut funding to a substantial portion of its researchers (and this means ending careers; think of this as laying off highly trained people who are the reason these missions fly)?
If the sequester happens, have empathy for the management of NASA’s planetary science program who will have had to make these choices.  In the meantime, support efforts to get Congress to increase future planetary budgets (see here and here,).


  1. Cassini should be flown until it breaks. The Mars program can be restarted with reasonable lead times if and when conditions improve. I'm in my late 40s and I now despair that we will see another flagship to the outer planets in my lifetime.


  2. I think the cuts are actually worse than your initial calculations, as the sequester is cut from the FY12 levels, not FY13. An 8.2% cut on the FY12 budget would be around $123 million.

  3. Anonymous - Don't forget ESA's Jovian JUICE mission, which promises to be a spectacular mission to explore that system's icy moons, Jupiter, and the magnetosphere. It is a large New Frontiers/small Flagship class mission.

    Casey - Hadn't realized which year was the baseline, and thanks for the information. Since NASA's top line budget for FY12 and FY13 are the same, it may not make the much difference in the end.