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.