Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Surprising Admission

In past years, I have tried to keep discussions of budgets to a minimum in this blog.  While this is a nerdy admission of my own (but not the one that is the subject of this post), I find budgets fascinating.  In my past life of planning product roadmaps for a high tech company, I learned to focus on budgets.  They were either an enabler for the projects I wanted to see done or a roadblock.  That is also true for each space agency’s planetary exploration roadmap.  (One senior planetary scientist once said he used to skip the project organization charts for proposed missions; now they are what gets most of his attention because who is on the team enables what can be done.)

However, I recognize that few others share this interest in budgets.  I had planned to have one or two posts when the President proposed NASA’s FY13 budget and then maybe another one next Fall when Congress passed the final version.  This year, of course, NASA’s proposed planetary budget was a nasty shock for the planetary community and those who follow it. 

The “good” news is that the story continues.  Instead of fading into obscurity, Congress and the planetary community continue to express their unhappiness with the proposed plan.  (I wish that were also true for the cuts proposed for ecological science where I do my professional research.  Things could get ugly for the Kane family budget in a couple of years when my current projects complete.)  Congress, of course, can restore part or all of the planetary program budget cuts.

Today, two events occurred that received a fair amount of press.  First, at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, NASA’s science managers discussed the budget cuts with the science community.  (As is their job, they defended the proposed plan.)  NadiaDrake at Science News has a nice summary of the discussion as does Paul Rincon at the BBC.

However, the surprising admission came from NASA’s head, Charlie Bolden, at testimony before Congress, where he was grilled about the proposed cuts in a “heated” discussion with key Congressmen.  Here is how Space Policy Online described the admission: “[Congressman] Schiff assiduously attempted to get Bolden to say that the Mars cuts were imposed on NASA by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), but Bolden insisted the decision was his.   He also admitted that he had not known that the 2016 and 2018 missions with ESA would not actually have returned a sample to Earth.   The 2018 mission only would have collected and stored (cached) samples, but could not return them to Earth -- a hugely expensive proposition.   Bolden said that everyone apparently knew that but him.  He made the same admission at the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) Science Committee meeting two weeks ago where he revealed that he had a long conversation with then OMB Director (now White House Chief of Staff) Jack Lew while under the misimpression that the 2016 and 2018 missions would return a sample, an effort that would indeed have significant budget implications.”

Editorial Thoughts:  I did find it surprising that the head of NASA decided to kill a major mission and leave NASA’s premier partner, the European Space Agency, in the lurch by cancelling NASA’s participation in the ExoMars program.  As I thought about it more, however, I was less surprised.  From Bolden’s point of view, NASA’s science program works well, with the exception of the James Webb Space Telescope’s budget, which suffered galloping cost overruns.  I don’t follow the human spaceflight program in detail, but my impression is that it’s confused and underfunded.  NASA is attempting to simultaneously develop two new human spaceflight systems, one in house and one through commercial companies.  The problems are on the human spaceflight side, and that likely gets almost all of Bolden’s attention.

I also, as I’ve relooked at the budget proposal, I believe that the majority of the cut to planetary program is going to help fund the human spaceflight program (with the rest, about a third, going to fund cost overruns on JWST).  This thought isn’t original with me – I saw it first in some pointed questions in a Congressional hearing that essentially stated the same.  The BBC article mention earlier states, "The FY2013 budget proposal shifts funds to human spaceflight and space technology, in line with the agency's major commitments going forward to fund the development of a huge new rocket and capsule system to take astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit to destinations such as the Moon and asteroids."

As I’ve said before, it’s my guess that Congress will restore some but not all of the proposed cuts by making cuts elsewhere at NASA.  Say that the planetary program gets half the cut back, around $150M.  (Over five years, that would pay for a Discovery mission, including the launch, with some left over.)  What does NASA do with the additional money?  The chance to participate in the ExoMars program has left the building, so to speak.  There’s no alternative Mars or outer planets mission that I know of ready to take that level of funding starting next year.  Planetary missions have long lead times of analysis before they begin development where the serious money is spent. 

My thought: NASA will select one Discovery mission late this spring from three candidate missions.  If Congress restores funds, then perhaps NASA could select a second Discovery mission next year from among these candidates.  Each of the three candidate missions would be ready to begin development almost immediately.  (Beginning a new round of competition for a new list of candidates would require around two years before the selected mission could begin development.) 

I don’t know if this is possible (there are likely peak funding issues), but it would address what to me is the biggest loss in the proposed planetary cuts.  The bedrock of the planetary program, per the recommendations of the Decadal Survey, is a vigorous Discovery program.  With the cuts, the flight rate drops from the recommended five missions per decade to something like two to refund a Mars program later this decade that is currently undefined and not oriented around returning samples to Earth.

While the cuts to NASA’s Mars program have received the bulk of the attention in the press and in Congressional hearings (at least as reported by the press), that is only half the story.  The key question to me is how to use the funding eventually approved by Congress to implement the most balanced program possible that addresses the science community’s highest priority questions.

And I promise that the next post won't be on the budget.


  1. VK, lets pretend you are in Vegas and you are a betting man...does this budget better the odds that the next Discovery selection favors the InSight mission? Also, first I've heard of the potential for a 2nd selection from the upcoming Discovery mission group to be selected next year, could NASA choose TiME first and InSight next year??

  2. I want to make it clear that the thought that NASA might select a second Discovery mission is purely my own speculation. It highlights the fact that cancelling NASA's ExoMars participation leaves the agency without (so far as I know) any "shovel ready" missions to apply big increases in funding towards. I also speculated on this to highlight the impact of the proposed budget on the Discovery program.

    As for InSight's chances, yes it is a Mars mission, but NASA has also indefinitely delayed any future outer planet missions, which would favor the Titan TiME proposal. And the comet CHopper mission would do excellent science, too.

    I'm always reluctant to place bets on Discovery mission selections. The key factor in choosing among the finalists appears to be implementation risk, and that involves information usually not shared with the public. The science of any of the three finalists is excellent.

  3. I'd like to see NASA go the "extra Discovery mission" route, where they to snag another 150 mill for planetary science.

    I'd then like to see them select Titan MARE and InSight.

    For the 600-800 million Mars 18/20 mission, a new science orbiter to image the most habitable/astronaut-friendly landing spots, would be ideal.

    I think Bolden really, sincerely believes NASA can just-barely thread the needle and get Americans to Mars in the 2030s. When he was fully appraised of the situation and learned that sample return -- even with robust budgets -- wouldn't happen until the 2020s, he probably realized "what's the point," especially if we're still spending billions every year to land men there in the 2030s.

  4. Scientists should be budget-conscious. Budget is what makes this all happen. I think Congress will restore some of the money, but personally I doubt they use it to fund another Discovery mission out of this AO. Apparently Jim Green hinted that some restored funding could push the next AO back to the left instead of having a 54 month gap. The participation in the 2016 mission is dead, but some money could still support 2018 ExoMars.

  5. I don't know if they could pull of two ASRGs, but perhaps they could select from recently rejected solar powered missions if a second one is not available.