Thursday, October 27, 2011

Whither NASA's Planetary Program?

"Word has leaked out that in its new budget, the Obama administration intends to terminate NASA’s planetary exploration program. The Mars Science Lab Curiosity, being readied on the pad, will be launched, as will the nearly completed small MAVEN orbiter scheduled for 2013, but that will be it. No further missions to anywhere are planned."
- Robert Zubrin

"Rumors of the death of NASA’s planetary science program are greatly exaggerated, according to the head of the agency division responsible for that activity...'“It is not true the planetary program is being killed' [said James Green].

"...this is the most challenging budgetary time of my entire 33 year career."
- Dr. James Green, Director of Planetary Science at NASA Headquarters

"In 1980, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the NASA Administrator made the decision to shut down planetary exploration in NASA in order to free up funds for the development of the Space Shuttle.... The administration leaders told us, face-to-face, that the planets could wait because soon the cost of access to space would be so cheap that we could fly any missions about which we could dream.  
"We fought back, and they didn’t shut down planetary exploration. However, they did cut it deeply, resulting in a dark decade with no launches to and no data coming back from from other worlds.
"Imagine a NASA that for ten years (say, 2015 to 2025) ceases to explore the solar system and stops looking deep into the universe.  We’re in a similar situation today. "
- Dr. Louis Friedman (former Executive Director of The Planetary Society)  

I know that discussions of budgets are not the favorite topic of some of my readers, nor mine.  However, the recent news and commentary on budgets has been dire enough that returning to this topic seems appropriate.  Without funding, all the great ideas for NASA missions are no more than the paper or webpages they are printed on.  And so, I am publishing one of my few opinion pieces.  Please feel free to agree or disagree in the comments.

Four pieces of bad news, not including the unnamed sources cited by Zubrin, have triggered the concerns:

  1. The President's budget request for FY12 projected severe declines in out year budgets for the planetary program.  These cuts, if enacted in future years, essentially end NASA's ability to carry out Flagship scale planetary missions on its own for the foreseeable future.
  2. The President's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has refused to allow NASA to commit the approximately $1.5B needed for its proposed joint Mars program with ESA.  No public reason has been given (but I have speculations, see below).
  3. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is severely over budget, and NASA has proposed to OMB that it cover the additional costs by in part transferring funds from other science programs, including, presumably, the planetary program.  No figures have been given, but my back of the envelope calculations suggest that the transfers, if approved by OMB and ratified by Congress, might cost the planetary program a Discovery mission.
  4. Current American law will require automatic cuts to all discretionary Federal programs, including NASA, if the two political parties are unable to overcome their differences on identifying future substantial budget cuts.  A figure published by the journal Nature suggests the automatic cuts could be ~11% for programs like NASA.  Again, that could cost the planetary program a Discovery or New Frontiers mission.

On top of this, NASA's human spaceflight program has been given an ambitious set of tasks that many don't believe it will have funds to fulfill without transferring funds from other programs (which has happened before and resulted in cuts to NASA's science programs).

I have been a manager at a major high technology firm, and I understand the challenges of budget crunches and trying to scramble to keep programs going and recraft roadmaps.  Dr. Green and his colleagues have my admiration for what they are doing and their honest assessments of the situation.

I also applaud the efforts of the planetary science community, Dr. Friedman, and The Planetary Society for advocating for a strong planetary program.  The political process, which will decide the level of funding, responds to strong community commitment.

With the information I have, however, I don't believe that OMB is necesarrily the bogey man preventing the planetary program from pursuing a great program.  NASA's two biggest programs, human spaceflight and JWST, are under funded.  Major new budget cuts to all of NASA are a real possibility.  If OMB approves the Mars funding, can it meet the commitments made to the Europeans in the out years without gutting the rest of the planetary program?  In addition, what America buys through the investment in the joint Mars program is the first mission in three needed to return samples from Mars.  Another ~$6B (Decadal Survey estimate) would be needed to complete the program.  If OMB doesn't believe the rest of the program can be afforded or has the necessary political support within Congress, then is the first payment a wise move?

As a strong supporter of planetary exploration, I favor the investment in the joint program because it also enables the Mars Trace Gas Orbiter and the European ExoMars rover, which would be a great mission in its own right.  However, spending American taxpayer dollars to fly European rover instruments to Mars probably do not make a strong sell within OMB.

The total cost for building the JWST and the three missions needed for the Mars sample return would be about $8B each.  European investments in a joint program might reduce the U.S. cost for the sample return by $2-3B.  OMB has the option to support JWST and build on the $3B already spent and the option to begin investment in a Mars sample return program now and save $2-3B through cooperative investments by the European Space Agency.

Dr. Green points out that the astronomical community has done a great job of making the case for the science of JWST and building political support.  My guess is that the real issue here is that the planetary science community has not made the political sale for the Mars sample return program, and as a result, OMB is reluctant to make the down payment.  

I remember the 1980 budget disaster mentioned by Dr. Friedman in the quote above well.  It led me to publish one of my first articles.  In those days, the seriously proposed planetary missions were Flagship-class.  A few people called for flying small, focused, and relatively inexpensive missions, some of which I profiled in that article.  Eventually these ideas would lead to the highly successful Discovery and New Frontiers mission programs that do great science at less than Flagship prices.  Check out the Messenger Mercury, Dawn Vesta and Ceres, and the Juno Jupiter missions for examples of what can be done.

Ultimately, the President's office and Congress will have to sort out priorities.  Is the James Webb Space Telescope's science higher priority than the joint Mars program with ESA and an eventual Mars sample return?  Is reducing the Federal budget deficit so important that NASA and many, many other programs should be cut?  (Funding for my research comes from some of the programs facing cuts, so I have skin in this game.)  

I believe that NASA's top science priority should be to understand the changes occuring to the Earth's biosphere on which we all depend.  I personally prioritize planetary science over astronomical science, but believe both are important.  Making the JWST's science NASA's top science priority after Earth Science is in no way a stupid call, but not the one I would make.  My major concern with JWST is that a single launch failure or design flaw could make several billion dollars in future investment a waste.  By moving forward with JWST, NASA is betting the bulk of its science program for the coming decade on a single mission.

In 1980, the only missions being proposed seriously were Flagship-scale missions.  Today, NASA has strong Discovery and New Frontiers mission programs that fly missions for much less than Flagship prices.  If the coming decade were to have the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return and each of the three Discovery missions that are current finalists (the Titan Mare Explorer, the Comet Hopper, and the Mars GEM geopysical mission) or equivalently good mission in their turn, it would be a good but not great decade.  

At the last Outer Planets Analysis Group (OPAG) meeting that I listened to, it was said that the last Discovery mission selection included three outer planet missions that would fit into the Discovery mission budget cap.  This is a new development and a major achievement for NASA and planetary science community.  The Discovery and New Frontiers programs can advance planetary exploration across most of the solar system.

NASA also is not only game in town.  Europe has two planetary missions in competition for selection, Russia has a Phobos mission ready for launch and lunar and Venus missions in development, Japan has another asteroid sample return mission in development, and India and China are building their programs of planetary exploration.  

As for Zubrin's claim, the quick denial by a NASA manager known for being straightforward leaves me doubtful of his claim.  There have been no other hints of this radical of a move by the administration.  Congress has supported NASA's science programs, and a sudden change like this requires conccurance of the administration and Congress.  Sometimes Chicken Little is right, but extraordinary claims require more evidence than a single uncited source.

I'll close with some words from a second article from Dr. Freedman that resonated with me: "As I have said many times, it makes no difference to Mars when it is explored or by whom, but it makes a huge difference to us, the people who own the program and carry it out. Just as when, nearly 20 years ago, the US abandoned the Superconducting Supercollider effort, it is one more piece of evidence of a great country ceding its greatness and reducing its hopes and investments for the future... For those who like to think short-term only, it also reduces jobs and national capability. Universities and companies around the country have motivated academic achievement and inspirational jobs with Mars and other planetary exploration." 

1 comment:

  1. I believe the phrase you were looking for was human spaceflight, rather than manned spaceflight.