Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Coming Planetary Budget Cuts?

A number of news reports suggest that the U.S. administration will ask non-entitlement* and non-defense budgets to take a 5-10% budget cut in the Fiscal Year 2011 budget.  A budget cut at the high end of that range carried out over a decade would eliminate a mission roughly the size of a New Frontiers mission.  Additional budget cuts in future years would also be possible.

Currently, NASA's projected budgets (from the FY10 budget package) would provide approximately $12B over a decade to develop planetary missions (  There has been talk that NASA would receive an increase next year to put the manned spaceflight program back on track.  Also, there are long term promises to increase spending on science programs of all types.  Given the competing pressures, several scenarios could play out; for example:

  • All NASA programs receive budget increases
  • The manned portion of NASA's budget receives an increase but the science program remains flat at best or is cut
  • All NASA programs receive budget cuts

Editorial Thoughts: Whatever happens to NASA's budget next year, the political pressure to reduce deficits seems strong in both parties.  We may see multiple cuts to the planetary program over the coming decade.  Given this, in my opinion, a key measure of the success of the Decadal Survey is to propose a prioritized set of missions that remains robust even in the face of declining budgets (and likely cost overruns on some early missions in the queue).  It is quite possible that the lower priority missions will never fly because of insufficient funds.  An interesting question is whether the Survey will prioritize smaller missions (support a diversity of targets) or larger missions (in-depth study of one to two targets) as higher priorities.

*Budget Primer: I find the budgeting processes of other nations confusing and suspect that many of this blog's readers may find the U.S. process confusing.  There are four large pots of spending in the U.S. budget: Entitlements (social security and medical funding for retirees, etc.) at 54%, payment of interest on the national debt 8%, military spending 21%, and everything else 17%.  (Breakdown from FY08 from  Interest spending cannot be avoided, and it is politically challenging to cut entitlements and military spending.  Therefore, attempts to reduce deficit spending tend to fall on the everything else category that includes NASA, the FBI, national parks, and many other functions. 


Sharpening the budget cleaver

Is There A 10% Budget Cut In NASA's Future?


  1. Regarding whether the Decadal Survey will prioritize smaller or larger missions, there are two countervailing forces. On one side, planetary scientists, when polled, have consistently said that they prefer smaller missions (although they favor increased spending on Research and Data Analysis, using the data from already-flown probes, to either one). The latest demonstration of this is the Small Bodies Assessment Group poll mentioned by Van a few entries down.

    On the other side, it's becoming harder to fly smaller missions that turn out genuinely novel scientific data; the instruments required are getting bigger. The archetypal example of this is Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, as well as the space telescopes. This probably explains the upward creep of costs in the Discovery Program.

    I can't predict which force will be predominant in the Decadal Survey's conclusions -- my guess is that they will try to split the difference and recommend a fairly even mixture of small and large missions. Perhaps the biggest question is what they'll recommend regarding the Mars Sample Return, which in its latest form will cost about $6 to 7 billion and cannot be scaled down very much. Since this would devour the rest of the planetary program wholesale in a seriously diminished NASA budget, will the Survey simply recommend abandoning it for the near future?

    (As for Van's hopes that the Survey will come up with a prioritized list of missions so that the higher-priority ones can survive such budget cuts: the Survey has at least been charged with picking a prioritized list of New Frontiers missions, as it did last time.)

  2. My home country Germany spends 10.7% of its total budget on military, which I think is to much already. I think the USA should seriously cut its military spending and invest in science.

    By the way, what's going on with the Augustine commission? They have said many things about the situation at NASA. When is Barack Obama deciding on the future budget of NASA?