Sunday, April 29, 2012

Congress Replies

President's proposed budget (solid line) and proposed Congressional changes (dashed and dotted lines) for programs in NASA's planetary science budget that would fund development of new missions in this coming decade.  Sources: President's budget proposal, proposed House bill, and news accounts for Senate version.

In several posts this year, I’ve discussed the impact of the proposed cuts in the spending for future planetary missions in the proposed Presidential budget.  (See this post for an overall summary.)  This year the Congressional budgeting process is moving forward on schedule and we have Congress’evolving  take on the Fiscal Year 2013 budget. 

To briefly recap the President’s proposed budget for planetary exploration, the budget for Mars exploration would be cut by $226M in FY13 compared to FY12.  Mars exploration budgets would continue to drop through FY15 to support peak funding for the New Frontiers OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sample return mission and a Discovery mission to be selected this summer.  Then funding for the New Frontiers and Discovery programs would drop dramatically to support a re-invigorated Mars program, call the Mars Next Decade, but one that would not include Mars sample return as a goal.  

There were several major fall outs from this proposed budget:
  • NASA withdrew from joint missions with the European Space Agency to Mars in 2016 and 2018.  (ESA has since replaced NASA with Russia as a partner for these missions.) 
  • The top priority for Flagship missions in the Decadal Survey, Mars sample return, was dropped as a goal
  • No Flagship-scale missions (>$1B) are now planned to be started to any solar system destination this decade
  • The pace of New Frontiers and Discovery missions would be cut well below the goals set by the Decadal Survey.  (For example, the Survey called for starting five Discovery missions this decade; the proposed budgets by my back-of-the-envelop calculations would support starting 2-3 Discovery missions.)
  • The Mars Next Decade program to jointly further the scientific exploration of Mars and to develop technology for exploring Mars was proposed with a first mission, goals to be defined, planned for 2018

As I and many of news sources and blogs have reported, the proposed budget was not well received by either the planetary science community or by Congress. 

The committees in both the House of Representatives and the Senate responsible for NASA’s budget have drafted their spending bills and the news for planetary exploration is good.  (NASA’s overall budget would still drop and other NASA programs would receive cuts compared to the President’s budget.  See SpaceNewsfor a good summary of the overall NASA budget picture resulting from the Congressional proposals.)  The Senate bill would restore $100M to the Mars exploration program to be spent on future Mars missions.  The House bill would restore $200M, with $115M going to the New Frontiers and Discovery programs to enable a faster pace of missions and $88M going to a future Flagship mission.  (The remainder of the House increase would go to support research programs in FY13).  The House bill would direct NASA to spend the Flagship money either on a mission leading to a Mars sample return or on a Europa orbiter (the Decadal Survey’s number two priority for a Flagship mission).  The funding available for a Mars sample return money or a Europa orbiter would be $150M, which includes funds the President included for the Mars Next Decade program.  This would be a down payment with significant funding needed in future years to actually build a Flagship scale mission.

At some point this summer, Congress is supposed to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill and send the resulting compromise to the President for his approval.  Campaigning for this fall’s election may delay the final bill and Congress may end up passing an omnibus bill that just funds large numbers of agencies at a percentage of the previous year’s spending.  A final spending level closer to the House version would clearly be better for future planetary exploration.

If a version closer to the House bill is the eventual approved budget for NASA, it will be interesting to see how NASA’s managers choose to spend it.  You cannot, for example, take the budget for a $1.5B Flagship mission and just divide it by four to fund it over four years, which is a typical time to develop a new mission.  Rather, spending is low in the first years as the design work is done and peaks in the last year or two before launch as hardware is actually built and tested.  Spending then continues after launch to support mission operations. In planning to use any restored budget, NASA’s managers will have to select and schedule the development of missions to fit in peak spending.  You can see this at work in the chart above as spending for Mars is traded for spending on New Frontiers and Discovery missions and vice versa.

The full language of the House bill pertaining to planetary exploration has been posted at; I encourage you to read it (it's about a page long) if you would like more detail. I'll close with a quote of the first paragraph:

Planetary science has long been one of NASA's most successful programs, and the cuts proposed in the budget request will endanger this strong record and deviate significantly from the program plan envisioned by the most recent planetary science decadal survey. The Committee's recommendation of $1,400,000,000 [$200M above the President’s request] seeks to address programmatic areas where the Administration's proposal is most deficient in meeting the decadal survey's goals while also ensuring that the program, as a whole, maintains balance among program elements."

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