Thursday, July 16, 2009

Corrected: "We no longer have a viable Mars program"

A previous version of this blog entry gave an incorrect number for the probable level of funding to be available for planetary missions in the next decade -- that number should have been $10B. I also confused who gave what advice on the budget to use as the baseline. This version corrects that mistake. Thanks to the readers who pointed out the mistakes.


The journal Science's blog has posted a summary of the key issues raised at the last meeting of the Planetary Sciences Subcommittee, an advisory body of planetary scientists. The report confirms what was posted in other blogs and summarized in previous posts of my blog. The head of NASA's science program, Ed Weiler, had three key messages: NASA's planetary exploration budget has shrunk from $3B to $1.5B and as a result NASA no longer had a coherent Mars program nor could afford to build the Jupiter Europa Orbiter (penciled for launch in 2020). The galloping cost increases of the Mars Science Laboratory (originally proposed as a $600M technology development mission, then a $1.6B Flagship-class science mission that will eventually cost more than $2.2B with cost overruns).

Summaries of the first Decadal Survey meeting had an interesting tidbit. The program to be proposed by the Decadal Survey has to assume some funding level. Analysts from the White House's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) said that the Survey should use the recently proposed FY2010 budget as the baseline. (For those not familiar with the intricacies of the U.S. government, OMB essentially manages the Federal budget. Agencies such as NASA request funding levels, but OMB decides what is proposed to Congress, which actually enacts the laws that set the funding levels.) NASA's science management told the Survey members to assume that the currently proposed FY2011 budget should be the guideline. I lay my bet on a steady level of funding as hinted at by OMB. However, funding could go down as the President tries to reduce budget deficits or up if the expensive manned lunar program is reduced.

Editorial Thoughts: At current spending levels, the planetary program will have about $10B to spend on missions over the next decade. At current spending rates, Discovery and New Frontiers missions (with launch vehicles) should run about $3B, the Mars program (as currently budgeted) about $5.5B, and the outer planets about $1.5B (too little to fund both Cassini operations and a flagship mission).

My presumption is that the PI Discovery and New Frontiers missions will be recommended for continuation by the Decadal Survey. I think that the interesting questions will be whether to continue the Mars program, replace it with an outer planets Flagship mission, or perhaps to replace it with 3-4 small flagship missions of $1-1.5B. These small flagship missions could include a Mars network, comet surface sample return, a Jovian or Titan observer, simple Venus landers, etc.

No comments:

Post a Comment