Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Ruckus

NASA officials made the first presentation of the impact of the FY13 budget proposal before the Planetary Science Subcommittee, which is charged with providing outside advice from the scientific community to NASA's planetary program.

The posted presentations and the press accounts suggest a contentious discussion.

Dr. James Green, head of the Planetary Sciences Division presented the administration's proposal.  The major "news" is already well known: The budget requires cancellation of NASA's participation in a joint Mars program with Europe and cannot support a Flagship mission to the outer planets.  In place of these is a new, smaller Mars program to be funded by NASA's Human Exploration program, technology development program, and the science program.

His presentation included a few new details not found in the budget documents:

  • The competition for the next New Frontiers (NF4) mission will begin in FY16 with an expected launch around 2023
  • The competition for a new Discovery mission (Discovery 12 after the selection of Discovery 12 this summer) will begin in FY15 with a launch around 2020
Dr. Green did not present any details on the first mission in the new Mars program expected to launch in 2018.  These may come in the Mars Exploration Analysis Group (MEPAG) meeting next week. 

Separately, SpaceNews reports that the cuts proposed for next year's budget in the outer planets program largely will be used to begin planning the new Mars program and developing technology.  (By my reckoning, the remaining funding covers operation of the Cassini mission and limited planning for future Flagship missions that would not begin in this decade.)

Editorial Thoughts:  As a civil servant, Dr. Green's job is to support the President's proposal and then implement the program passed into law through Congress' funding bills.  Having had to deliver unpleasant plans of record myself, I don't envy him his task.

It's clear from the presentations from the different Analysis Groups (there's one for each solar system destination) and press accounts that the scientific community does not agree with this new budget.  They point out that it does not support the recommendations from last year's Decadal Survey report.  While the report called for missions to Europa if the joint Mars program could not be funded, the President has proposed a smaller and still undefined Mars program instead.  While the report called for selecting five new Discovery missions in the coming decade, at the pace supported by the budget it will be only two after the selection this summer.  While the report called for selecting two new New Frontiers missions after the selection of the OSIRIS-REx mission last year, it appears that only one may be selected.

When I started this blog, I decided to make it a source of information rather than of advocacy since there were several groups for the latter, both of professional scientists and citizens.  Suffice it to say, I don't agree with this budget proposal.  From the press articles, neither does the scientific community nor, most importantly, several Congressmen who will have considerable influence over the final budget.

I will go out on a limb and make a couple of predictions.  First, I think Congress will restore some, but not all of the proposed cuts to the planetary budget.  The additions will be too small and too late to restart the joint program with Europe or to begin an outer planets mission.  Rather, they may be used to make the new Mars program more robust.  (The current projected budgets past FY13 back load the program, potentially making it hard to fund a robust 2018 mission.)  Alternately, they may support a higher flight rate for New Frontiers and Discovery missions.

Second, I suspect that the joint Mars program with significant funding from the Human Exploration program may be short lived.  A proposal of this type seems to come up every few years, and then fizzle out.   We did get the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the LADEE mission from what was to be the first of many robotic missions to prepare for manned missions to the moon.  However, last year's proposed joint program died quickly when it was still only on paper.   A manned mission to the moon, an asteroid, or Mars is far off and in the meantime the Human Exploration program is under funded for its current projects.  

My take on the proposed new planetary program -- a new Mars program and reduced Discovery and New Frontiers programs -- is that it is the first cut at a plan in a much smaller planetary program than we had expected two years ago and even last year.  There hasn't been time to work with Congress and the scientific community to develop and build consensus around a new plan.  The budgetary assumptions underlying the proposals in the Decadal Survey have gone away.  Much of the analysis from the Survey can be used to develop the new program.  

Some interesting questions that might addressed in developing the new program might include:
  • Should Mars be the focus of a dedicated portion of the budget?  Should another target be the focus instead?  Or should there be no focused target?
  • If there is a dedicated program to Mars, how large should it be in relationship to the New Frontiers and Discovery programs?  Fly more missions to Mars or fewer to Mars and more to other targets through a  higher mission rate for the New Frontiers and Discovery programs?
  • If there is a dedicated program for Mars, what should be its compelling vision to replace the previous follow the water and the current follow potential habitable sites?
  • Should the list of target missions for New Frontiers be revisited?  No missions are on the list for any of the icy moons because the Decadal Survey assumed a Flagship mission would be flown to either Europa or Uranus and its moons.  Now that those missions are out, should an icy moons mission be put on the list?  
  • If the budget will support only a New Frontiers mission and a half or so each decade, should the flight rate be reduced to one, larger mission per decade?  A single flight per decade could probably fly one of the new smaller Flagship missions under study to Europa or a similar class mission to Titan and Enceladus.
As a former strategic planner, I'm fascinated to see how these and many other questions will be answered.  In the meantime, I'm hoping for better news from the actions of Congress on this proposed budget.

PSS presentations:

Good articles with more background:

SpaceNews: NASA Raids Outer Planets Budget To Fund Fast Start on Mars Reboot
SpaceFlightNow: Mars, Europa missions battle for scarce NASA funding
SpacePolicyOnline: Mars Shaping Up as NASA Budget Battleground
SpacePolitics: The Mars skirmishes continue


  1. One wonders what the value of the Decadal Survey is when so many of its recommendations are essentially spat at by the executive.

  2. Seems to me that NASA is abiding by the basic guidelines of the Decadal Survey, which prioritized R&A and competed (lower costing) missions above flagships. Few, if any, will be perfectly happy with the required cuts but to have the Mars community whine after having a decade with 6 Mars missions, including one flagship, is childish.

    We have quite a few samples from Mars in the form of meteorites. Opposing OMB's plan to scrap the poorly conceived 'plan' to retrieve a few more at a cost of three (that's right, three!) future flagships and well over $10B, at a time when the US is under serious fiscal stress,is just plain dumb.

  3. The part that's not in accordance with the Decadal is the new Mars program instead of a Discovery every 24 months and 2 New Frontiers.

    G Clark

  4. I can understand why OMB (the President's office that manages budgets) decided against the Mars sample return. It would have required successful flight of three Flagship-scale missions, any of which could have had substantial cost overruns. My guess is that we won't get a Mars sample return until some mission finds a location rich in organics.

    The ruckus is that NASA chose to start a new Mars program that so far seems to have no connection to the Decadal Survey priorities. For the same funding proposed for this new Mars program, NASA probably could fully fund the New Frontiers and Discovery programs and one of the newer, cheaper concepts for a small Europa Flagship.

    To kick start the new Mars program, it also appears that NASA appears to be substantially reducing funding available for current missions in their extended mission phase. Unless there's some trick I'm not aware of, this will result in loss of science from these missions and possibly turning some off.

  5. Several issues are relevant to future Mars missions.
    First, for the $700 million that appears to be available for a 2018 mission, the InSight Mars Lander could be flown. If the Mars community chose to "pull out" InSight from the Discovery program and directly fund it with Mars money, that might mollify the rest of the planetary community. This would then leave the 2 other candidates (Titan Boat and Comet Hopper) to vie for the Discovery funds. I can imagine the uproar if a Mars mission (InSight) takes money from the Discovery program AND an additional $700 million is spent on another Mars mission in 2018.
    Second, I have advocated before for a FBC Mars Sample Return mission. There are several Groundbreaking MSR proposals that would not cost $10 Billion. The Mars community must ask themselves if they want the absolutely perfect sample (and never get funding) or if they would settle for good, but perhaps not perfect, samples and actually fly an MSR mission AND get samples. This resembles the Europa community where they had been planning a Flagship Europa Orbiter that would probably cost $5 Billion. However, in the case of Europa that community went about the business of designing and proposing cheaper Europa missions.
    Third, as the law now stands, NASA's budget will be reduced from $17.7 Billion down to $16 Billion later this year. President Obama signed the Budget Control Act in August 2011 and it is now law. All agencies, including NASA will have a recession of 9%.
    The President said that he will veto any attempt to overturn this law. Do you think that our non-functional Congress could ever agree to an override of his veto? So, as it now stands, NASA is facing even more severe cuts soon.
    Fourth, let's not forget the efforts of other countries. For example, I have not seen any news reports on China's 2016 Mars mission. They are planning a Mars Orbiter with a Demo Mars Lander. I have not read any reports where the Chinese have changed plans on this. If you follow their lunar program, then you will see that they have been following their original plan of 2 Orbiters, to be followed soon by a Lunar Lander with Rover. By 2017, they will return samples from the Moon. China is a rising Space power who makes a roadmap and follows it. It would behoove our Congress to allow NASA to cooperate with them.
    Japan is planning a long-range Mars program, including an Orbiter in about 2020. I would also expect India to send a probe to Mars in the near future. It seems that they will aim at Venus first, but I imagine that Mars will soon follow.
    Fifth, if you look at NASA's budget document for Planetary Science, you will see on p.62, under Technology, several comments regarding the Mars Ascent Vehicle. It says that down-select and propulsion system component development was completed for the MAV. It also says that NASA will initiate technology and feasibility studies for the MAV. This seems to have escaped the notice of all of the media. It looks like NASA has not abandoned all work on MSR.
    Philip Horzempa