Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Budget + 1 Day

The proposed FY13 NASA budget has been out for a day, and I'll follow up on the basic analysis with some additional thoughts that a bit of reflection brings.

Last year's budget delivered the first budget of the new administration.  It projected a drop in future planetary funding to enable additional funding for Earth science missions.  At the time, I projected that this budget would mean that NASA could not afford Flagship missions to both Mars and the outer planets.  Subsequent analyses provided by NASA bore out that assessment.  

This year's budget proposal recommends further budget cuts.  In the near term, those cuts are borne by the Mars program while the New Frontiers and Discovery programs fund a mission development each.  At the end of the five year window, the Mars funding is restored but the New Frontiers and Discovery programs are cut.  With the budgets forecast by this proposal, it appears that NASA cannot afford both the Mars program at its current or restored levels and active development of both New Frontiers and Discovery missions.

I rarely editorialize in this blog, but I will here.  I believe that robust funding of the New Frontiers and Discovery programs are essential to a balanced program that includes the entire solar system.  If necessary, funding for these programs should be maintained by reducing the increase for the Mars program, which should still enable two or more substantial ("medium class") missions to Mars per decade.  (An increase to the planetary science budget would also do the trick -- hint to Congress.)

In an era of constrained budgets, Mars makes sense as a focus.  It is easy to reach, relatively easy to land on, has a fairly benign environment (at least compared to, say, the surface of Venus or the radiation fields at Europa), and NASA has substantial investments in technology to enable missions.

I am disappointed that there appears to be no way to begin development of a substantial NASA mission to any of the icy moons in the outer solar system in the next decade.  That leaves me hoping for the selection of the TiME Titan lake Discovery mission and the European Ganymede orbiter with Europa and Callisto flyby mission.  (I'm very impressed by the other two Discovery proposals in competition, but TiME must be selected for the next Discovery mission to arrive while the northern lakes are in a position for it communicate with Earth after landing.)

Ryan Anderson at the Martian Chronicles blog pointed out some smaller but key cuts that I had overlooked.  This year, NASA is spending $70M to continue operations of the Mars Odyssey orbiter, Opportunity rover, and the Mars Reconnaissance orbiter in addition to supporting American involvement for the European Mars Express orbiter.  Next year's proposal will cut that amount to $54 million (-24%).  The outer planet budget, which funds the Cassini orbiter along with future mission planning, will drop by 31%.  These cuts suggest substantial reductions in support for these continuing missions as hinted at by the angst over the upcoming review of these missions (also see here for Cassini).  (Funding levels for operating Discovery missions also drop, but it is hard to tell whether this is because of increased efficiencies in operations that occur as a mission gains experience, different mission phases, or because of planned cuts in science returned.  Also, what is that sudden jump in Dawn mission funding in 2017 after it has completed its mission at Ceres?  Is this a hint of an extended mission?)

If the budget levels in this proposal are implemented, NASA will still have the most capable program of planetary exploration in the solar system.  But between this and last year's proposals, that program and the portion of the solar system it can reach will be much smaller than we expected two years ago.

Here is a list of other good articles to read about the new budget proposal:

NASA Budget Pushes Science to the Brink (Planetary Society)

Proposed NASA Budget Cuts Mars Exploration by $226 Million (Martian Chronicles blog)


  1. It's been mentioned from time to time that we are in a Golden Age of planetary exploration. If true, the basis for that period is the Discovery Program. No NASA program has delivered so many missions at a relatively reasonable cost than Discovery. We have gone to more places than thought possible and even had two sample return missions out of it--all for missions that cost 1/5th of MSL and 1/16th of Webb. Imagine if you could choose 16 places to go in the solar system. People laugh when "Faster, Better, Cheaper" is mentioned, but Discovery has its roots there and it is the reason that program is successful. It will be quite a shame if Discovery is no more.

  2. I doubt that the plan is no more Discovery missions, but the rate might drop. I am a big fan of Discovery missions. In fact, I think the PI budget should grow slightly, from $425-500M to allow missions with long flight times to better compete.

    Some detail on flight rates:
    For the first 15 years, a new mission launched approximately every 1-2 years on average (2 in 1996, '98, '99, '01, '02, '04, '07, '09, '11). Then there will be a five year gap between GRAIL (2011) and Discovery 12 in 2016. The projected level of funding projected for FY17 would support a launch more or less every six years if carried forward.

  3. We might be out of the 2016 mission, but ExoMars cannot happen without the US simply from the EDL perspective. With the Europe budget woes, to develop this would cost way too much and certainly can't happen in the time frame needed. It is 2018 or bust for ExoMars! I've said in the past, what NASA needs to do is to "make money" and should sell the Sky Crane (as a partner)for a price if we cannot do it. We spend tons of $$$ for these one shot deals and when MSL lands, we can market a new Mars EDL process to add to our airbag landing system. Today there are only a small handful of agencies with space exploration experience....with one more quickly on the rise... set up an intl EDL office and sell these services to ESA, Russia, Japan.....and oh, yes China. What a novel idea.... making back our investment instead of leaving it on the shelf. Do we actually see using the airbag landing system again??? If so, I have not seen a mission proposal with one.

  4. The Mars precision landing technology developed for MSL is unique and a valuable asset. It is essential to putting rovers into the small safe zones at nearly all the really interesting landing areas. As I recall, it was a struggle to find two safe, interesting sites for the MER rovers, which lacked precision landing.

    I suspect that each copy of the MSL EDL (at least scaled to MSL/ExoMars class landers) is pricey, probably on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars. Many mission budgets can't afford that.

    I do hope that the future Mars missions make use of this technology. Otherwise the engineering teams likely will be dispersed.