Sunday, September 23, 2012

Not A Bias

Having read a number of forums and the comments on this blog, I know that a number of readers (I as was) were disappointed that the TiME Titan lake lander was not chosen for the next Discovery mission.  It’s now likely that I won’t see another mission to Titan in my lifetime.  Several blogs wondered if NASA had a Mars bias in its mission selection.

Once, in previous career, I was responsible for strategic planning of the product roadmap for a division of a high tech company.   We had to get a new product line out to remain competitive.  At the same time, executive staff of the company was cutting our division’s budget.  The engineering managers planned one set of products for the first budget, and then another for the first budget cut, and one for each subsequent budget cut.  Thanks to the extraordinary effort of the engineers, each plan made creative use of the expected resources to maximize the resources available with each budget. 

Since I started this blog, I have seen NASA’s expected planetary science budget cut again and again.  Each time, NASA’s managers have put together a new roadmap that makes the best use of the new smaller budget. 

When the Discovery program was created, one of the goals was to allow for riskier, more creative missions.  In the first decade, with ten mission starts, a few missions went over budget and one failed outright.  And we had nine brilliant successes.  In the second decade of the program, however, new missions starts have come at a pace of approximately one every five years.  When I was in charge of strategic planning, as budgets were cut, I became more conservative – the risk of failure in the few products possible was too great.

In the press conference announcing the decision for the InSight Mars mission, NASA’s managers stated that the selection of InSight was based on it providing the greatest confidence of a successful mission within the budget cap.  (All three proposals promised great science.)  Using an existing spacecraft design (the Phoenix Mars lander) and with two of three instruments paid for by partner space agencies, InSight was near the budget cap for the Discovery program.  The other two proposed missions, TiME and the CHopper comet mission, required new spacecraft designs and longer flight times, both adding costs. 

I don’t think that a Mars bias is a cause of NASA’s selection of the InSight mission. Rather, I think that the investments in the Mars program enabled a complex mission (as any Mars landing is) within a limited budget.

Perhaps the message in the selection is not that NASA has a bias but that the Discovery budget cap of $425M is too small to allow for compelling missions to other destinations.  If this is true, the proposal to raise the cap to $500M in the Decadal Survey report may enable new targets for the Discovery program.  However, if new Discovery missions remain twice in a decade events, then I think the natural tendency will be to be conservative with mission selections.  (See this article from Nature or this blog entry for more on the debate on whether Discovery mission selections have become more conservative.)

To enable a well-balanced program of missions to many solar system destinations, NASA’s needs increased fiscal support from the President’s office and Congress.  Instead, the immediate prospect is for possible further cuts as part of sweeping automatic cuts to the federal budget.  (See this blog post atthe Planetary Society’s webpage for the full gory details.) 

Whatever happens, I am confident that NASA’s planetary managers will continue to make best use of the funding made available.  To have the kind of program that I and I think most of my readers would like to see, NASA needs additional funding for planetary research.  NASA’s managers cannot lobby Congress for additional funding.  If you are an American citizen, however, you can.  I encourage you to contact Congress on your own or to join with the PlanetarySociety in its efforts to gain increases in NASA’s planetary exploration budget.


  1. Pushing back a little: if you look at this decision in isolation, then yes, it can be explained in terms of budget cuts leading to greater conservatism. Certainly InSight should be a "safer" mission than Chopper or Titan Mare -- it's just another Phoenix Lander, except dropped in a different location and with a different instrument suite. (N.B., that's not meant to be a slur. I have no problem with re-using successful spacecraft designs.)

    However, if you step back and look at the bigger context, it's hard not to notice that NASA has a bit of a thing about Mars. To give just the most recent example, NASA's proposal to use SLS to put a manned mission at the L2 point explicitly says that this is a waystation "on our way to the Red Planet". After the dozenth or so time that you hear Weaver or some other NASA person bring Mars into a discussion, you do start to wonder.

    Doug M.

  2. Doug -
    I think that NASA's senior management has a Mars bias, and we can see that in the proposed portion of the planetary budget after current the OSIRIS-REx and InSight missions complete development. I don't know if that is because they want to remake the program into a Mars program or whether it was reflexive, we know we will take heat for cutting the Mars budget and had better show large numbers in far off years.

    Either way, I think that the InSight selection can be explained without a Mars bias. $425M just isn't that much money and many of the compelling cheap missions have already been done.

    We hear more about the proposed new Mars program Tuesday, so more on this after that.

  3. Hello,

    Please check the new proposal for a lake "lander" at Titan. It's called "Titan Lake In-situ Sampling Propelled Explorer" (TALISE) and it was proposed (suposedly) at the European Planetary Science Congress on the 27th of September. Maybe Titan will a chance after all. Even better, this mission is more ambitious than TiME was, having propulsion and lasting for a planned 6 months for 1 year. Lets hope for the best!

  4. I strongly agree with Doug and strongly disagree with Van.
    NASA bias for Mars is strong, clear and evident.
    As Van himself notices in the article on Europa
    "Big science missions in the past often have required
    a decade or two to go from concept strongly supported
    by the science community to a funded project.
    (Curiosity was one of the rare exceptions.)"

    Not a "rare exception" for me, just a clear manifestation
    of the aforementioned bias.
    In my opinion, NASA strong bias for Mars comes from its
    link to the human space program. Mars is seens
    as their ultimate goal. If the fund are reduced, everything
    else but this is too.

    The irony is that, the longer the human mission to Mars is
    postponed, the less useful it will be.
    There will be no human Mars mission before 2030+. By that
    time robotics will be so advanced to make it almost redundant.
    I'm not talking about strong AI, just evolutionary improvements.
    Robots can already drive with no assistance in much more
    complex environments than Mars. Weak AI can detect (and/or
    will detect by 2030) new types of terrain and rock autonomously.
    And in any cases, there is a whole human team watching your
    One does not need strong AI to be an astronaut unless you
    want to be able to fix unforeseen complex problems.
    Problem is that a robotic mission costs a miserable fraction
    of a human one : no need to fix, send another one and you are
    still 100:1 better off.
    When robotics was rubbish like in the '70s and '80s, a mission
    to Mars would have had amazing returns.

  5. Doug and Enzo -

    It may be that a Mars bias influenced the InSight selection; my reading of the evidence is that the InSight selection results from the easy, cheap Discovery missions having been done and the cost cap perhaps being too low.

    Looking at all of NASA, there is clearly a Mars focus that comes at least in part from both from Presidential direction (the manned program) and the Decadal Survery's listing of a Mars sample return as the highest priority large mission. (Which OMB seems to have concluded meant that it was the Survey's highest priority, which was in fact the Discovery and New Frontiers missions.) The decision to do MSL instead of the simpler rover recommended by the previous Decadal Survey is evidence of a Mars bias within SMD.

    Short of being able to be the proverbial flies on the wall at NASA Headquarters we can't know which of our explanations is closer to the truth. I really appreciate your comments, though, and recognize that there may be \truth in your arguments.