Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Enabling a Decadal Survey Flagship Mission

I want to start this post by saying that all the details I'll present are certainly wrong.  However, I believe that the overall conclusion probably is approximately right.  And breaking with my tradition of having this blog focus on fact and not editorializing, this post is an editorial.

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.

1 comment:

  1. My analysis in this post makes several key assumptions:

    1) All missions in development or committed (New Frontiers 3, Discovery 12, and Mars Trace Gas Orbiter (MTGO)) are funded at the levels shown in the budget through FY16. Any funds in a mission category not specified for a specific mission would be available for the Decadal Survey. (I used swags for MTGO and Cassini operations.) I excluded funds from the research and technology development programs from this analysis.

    2) Following FY16, funding for missions continues through FY22 at the FY16 level but adjusted for inflation. I assumed that all funds would be available for the new missions recommended by the Survey; in reality, some of these funds would pay for operations launched earlier in the decade.

    3) I estimated the costs of New Frontiers 4 and 5 missions at $1.5B to account for the Survey's recommended funding to the Principal Investigator (PI) for the spacecraft, instruments, and operation; launch; and other NASA costs. (Looking through past budgets indicated the approximate range of other NASA costs.) I estimated the costs of Discovery missions after 2016 at $900M. I checked these estimates against the funding profiles in the Decadal Survey report (Fig. 9.1), and these appear to be in the ballpark (assuming that the funding wedge for Discovery mission was intended to support three Discovery missions after 2016). However, these are the numbers in the analysis about which I'm least certain.

    4) ESA and NASA can agree on a joint Mars rover mission that costs NASA $2.5B as recommended by the Survey, and that this would be the Flagship mission flown. If this cannot be met, the Uranus Orbiter and Probe and the Venus Climate Mission would have costs with ~$200M of this and could serve as alternative Flagship missions. An Enceladus orbiter at $1.9B would be a less expensive alternative.