Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Reactions to the Budget Proposal

The future of NASA’s planetary science for the next decade will be decided here on Earth in the offices of the President’s administrators and Congress.  It takes five years to conceive, develop, and launch relatively simple missions such as those flown by the Discovery program.  Technically complex missions such as Mars rovers or Europa orbiters require longer periods to mature the concepts and bring all the required technologies to flight readiness.  NASA’s funding over the next two or three years will determine whether it will be ready to launch complex missions seven to ten years from now.

The President's proposed FY14 budget would end planning for a NASA mission to Europa.

A week and a half ago, the President releasedhis proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2014 and budget projections for the following five years.  That proposal continues support for NASA’s smaller planetary missions in the Discovery ($450-500M) and New Frontiers ($750M-1B) programs.  Funding for a 2020 Mars rover based on the Curiosity rover’s design is foreseen in future budgets.  The technology program to mature technologies to enable future missions was cut to provide funding to develop new supplies of plutonium-238 to enable missions that cannot depend on solar power. (I missed this implication in my initial budget analysis because the budget documents provided no detail on how technology funding would be spent.)  The budget proposes no funding for maturing the design of a future Europa orbiter even though Congress had just weeks earlier inserted funding for this in the FY13 budget signed by the President.

The budget did proposed detailed analysis of and technology development for a major new manned spaceflight initiative to bring a small (~7 m diameter) asteroid into lunar orbit where it could be examined by NASA astronauts.

Entangled in discussions of the FY14 proposed budget are plans of how to cut the just enacted FY13 budget by approximately 5% to meet the terms of the sequester.  Press reports have suggested that NASA plans to cut much of the increase approved by Congress for the planetary program in the FY13 budget to reduce cuts to other programs.

The President’s budget proposals are just that – proposals subject to change as Congress, the scientific community, and private citizens review the impacts and lobby for changes.  Since the budget proposal was released, the dance of lobbying and staking out positions has begun.  In this post, I’ve rounded up a summary of reactions as reported on various websites.  If you are an American citizen, I urge you to make your opinions known to your representatives in Congress.  (See the end of the post for information on how to easily do this.)

Division for Planetary Sciences Analysis

The American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences is one of the major associations for professional planetary researchers.  They released their analysis of the budget last week: [The proposed budget] “continues the same cuts to NASA’s planetary science program that were proposed in last year’s FY13 Budget Request. The FY14 request is almost $300M less than the FY12 approved operating plan… There is some good news: the Research and Analysis (R&A) program appears to receive an $8M increase in FY14 compared to FY12, and remain flat for the out-years. Funding would be provided to the Discovery Program which may enable advancement of the next AO to FY14… Many other elements of the NASA planetary program, however, suffer. The Europa Clipper pre-project study funded by Congress in FY13 has no future according to the FY14 Budget Request… Cassini might be shut down in FY15… One concern is that while the total funding requested for the Mars 2020 rover mission seems adequate, the funding profile is heavily “back-loaded” meaning the bulk of the funds would be provided in the last two years. Lessons learned from past missions show back-funded missions to be at high risk of cost over-run.”

Congressional Reaction

Space News reports that Senator Mikulski, chairwoman of the Senate’s  Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies that funds NASA among other agencies, is “concerned” about the level of cuts proposed for the planetary program in the FY14 budget compared to the FY13 approved budget.  

A group of two Senators and two Representativeswrote NASA reminding its administrator that Congress approved a larger FY13 budget and requesting that NASA apply the sequester evenly across its programs.  This letter apparently was in response to the reports that NASA planned to eliminate much or all of the increase in the approved FY13 planetary budget to preserve funding for other programs from the sequester. 

Editorial Note: As is usual in NASA related Congressional positions, all the senators and representatives taking stances represent districts or states with substantial NASA activity.  While protecting local jobs is a primary survival instinct for any politician, the support for a broader planetary program among these members of Congress seems genuine.  They took care to ensure that a substantial portion of the cuts proposed by the administration were reversed in the final FY13 bill in ways that supported the scientific community’s recommendations in the Decadal Survey.  The proposed FY14 budget would reverse much of the increase in the FY13 budget.

The Planetary Society

The Planetary Society advocates for a vigorous robotic and human programs to explore the solar system.  After leading (and largely winning) a spirited fight to have many of the cuts proposed in the original FY13 budget reversed, they are back again this year fighting the cuts in the FY14 budget.  You can read their plans here.

Editorial: U.S. Planetary Science: Fading to Black

Two former senior managers in NASA’s science program, Robert Braun and Noel Hinners, wrote an editorial forSpace News (which does not require a subscription to read).  “By any objective measure, planetary science is one of America’s crown jewels… Despite the success that has built up over decades, today we are on a path that relinquishes U.S. planetary science leadership. Starting in 2017, with the end of the Juno mission at Jupiter and the Cassini mission at Saturn, NASA will only have spacecraft at or on their way to one planet: Mars… Because it takes at least five years to conceive, design and implement a planetary science mission, this cliff is not only upon us, it is getting larger with each passing day. The next suite of planetary science missions should already be in development… Unfortunately, President Barack Obama’s 2014 budget request for NASA continues the draconian path for planetary science laid out in the administration’s 2013 request… Does the U.S. really want to cede leadership of the scientific exploration of the rest of the solar system to other nations?”

Editorial Note: The opinion piece somewhat overstates the Mars focus.  The administration’s proposed budget continues support for the Discovery and New Frontiers programs.  While Discovery selections can target Mars (and the InSight Mars geophysical station in development does), it is likely that at least some future selected missions will target other destinations.  None of the approved targets for New Frontiers missions, including the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission in development, include Mars. 

However, Braun and Hinners are correct in their assessment of large missions (>$1B), where only Mars missions are envisioned.  And by the end of the decade, 60% of NASA’s planetary mission budget would focus on Mars, with the rest split between the more limited Discovery and New Frontiers missions.  This is not the balanced program of destinations envisioned in the Decadal Survey.

Reaction to the Asteroid Retrieval

In general, the most positive responses to NASA’s proposal to bring an asteroid to lunar orbit came from supporters of future asteroid mining.  Among other observers, the reactions ranged from wait and see the results of the analysis to be done this year to skepticism.  (If this proposal interests you, both the Space Review and Space Policy Online articles go into some depth in their analysis.)

The Space Review quotes Steve Squyres, (Principal Investigator for the Mars Opportunity mission, past chair for the planetary Decadal Survey, and current chair of NASA’s Advisory Committee) as saying, “I can’t assess it,” he said. “I don’t know if this can be done or not. I don’t know what it’s going to cost. It’s a very new idea, it’s very immature, it needs a really hard, carefully considered look, and then we’ll see.”

Space Policy Online reports that, “Skeptics point out that, apart from technical challenges, there is no explanation of where the money will come from to execute the mission in future years...   NASA said it thinks it might be able to do it for less [than the current ~$2.5B estimate] because some of the work is already underway, but the basis for that optimism is obscure since the agency will not even complete a mission concept study until the end of this summer… there is confusion over the relationship of this mission to protecting Earth from asteroids as well as why about humans are needed to bring back a sample of an asteroid when NASA already is building a robotic probe (OSIRIS-REx) to do that (not to mention that Japan already has done so and is planning a second mission), and the budget is murky in the short term and lacks credibility for the long term.”

Editorial Thought: I find the asteroid retrieval proposal intriguing.  I think too little is known about the technical issues and true cost to build a strategy around it just yet.  I look forward to learning those details as they become available in the next year.  For the current year, NASA is increasing funding for technologies essential to a possible retrieval but that would also be useful for other missions.


The DSP news release provided practical advice on how you can share your opinions on NASA’s planetary budget with Congress, which will write the final FY14 budget:

“We urge every member of the Division to write letters to your two senators and your representative expressing: (1) your thanks for the past support of Congress; (2) your concern about the sequester and the implications of the President’s FY14 Budget Request for the FY13 budget and all later years; and (3) your plea for continued support from Congress.

“Please write to your senators and representative today. A hand-written letter, faxed to your representative, is best. You can also use the website provided by The Planetary Society to send your own letter or their letter, which you can edit (; you do not need to be a member of The Planetary Society to use their website.

“To influence the FY13 NASA operating plan and the FY14 budget, the time to act is now. Please support planetary science and do not delay. A sample letter is given below, and will be posted on our website.”

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Proposed NASA Planetary Science Budget for 2014

The President’s Office of Management and Budget has released its requested for NASA funding for Fiscal Year 2014. 

The budget also projects funding for an additional five years.  Because NASA’s missions require multiple years of funding to develop, launch, and operate, these projections are what NASA’s managers will use to decide what missions they can fly.  So if Congress, for example, funds a new mission for a single year (say an Europa mission, as it did in the final passed FY13 mission) and that mission isn’t in the five year forecast, NASA’s managers cannot plan to take that mission to completion.  (Because NASA is part of the President’s administration, NASA managers are required to support and plan to the projected budgets provided by the President’s Office of Management and Budget.)

My description below is based on the FY14 budget proposal.  The President’s larger budget proposes to replace the sequester (which began in FY13 and is current law to continue for a decade) with budget cuts elsewhere in the budget.  NASA’s FY12 budget was $17.8B.  Under the sequester, the FY13 budget will be $16.6B.  However, the proposed budget for FY14 is $17.7B.  If Congress does not agree to end the sequester starting with the FY14 budget, the numbers in the post may well go down.

Because the planning to implement the FY13 budget sequestration will not be completed for another month or so, the budget document does not list an FY13 budget amount for most items.  The graphs in this post either use the projected budgets in the FY13 proposal or the amounts that Congress approved (but that may change because of the sequester).

The budget does propose to define a mission to capture an asteroid and return it to the vicinity of the Earth.  Very little of this funding is in the Planetary Science Division, so I will not discuss this program in this post.

Planetary Science highlights from NASA Administrator Bolden’s budget overview.

The good news:

All missions in development or currently flying remain fully funded (but see below on continuing mission funding).  Missions in development are the lunar LADEE orbiter (2013 launch), Mars MAVEN orbiter (2013), Mars InSight geophysical station (2016), and the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return (2016)  (and contributions for several foreign planetary missions).  In NASA’s Heliophysics program, funding is maintained for two solar missions, a joint mission with the European Space Agency, Solar Orbiter (2017), and a NASA mission that repeatedly will approach very close to the outer atmosphere of the sun, Solar Probe Plus (2018).

The budget proposes to increase the Discovery program ($424-500M missions) sufficiently to enable the selection of the next mission to begin in early 2014 instead of 2015.  At this higher funding rate, NASA can afford three to three and a half Discovery missions per decade (my back of the spreadsheet calculation) instead of two.

The budget fully supports a robust Mars program.  Funding is projected for the Mars 2020 rover, which will be based on the Curiosity rover’s design and entry and descent system.

The New Frontiers program would continue at essentially the same funding rate, which would allow slightly less than two missions per decade.  The selection of the next New Frontiers mission is scheduled to begin in 2016.

Funding is provided for producing new plutonium-238 to enable missions that cannot operate on solar power.

The budget proposed to double funding (to $40M per year) for the search for Near Earth asteroids.

Funding for Research and Analysis (which supports the planetary science research community) will have a small increase (from $122M in FY12 to $130M in FY14).  The Technology program, which develops new technologies to enable future missions, will have a slight budget decline in FY14 and then relatively flat budgets (but with ups and downs) in the out years.

Congressionally-approved budgets for major Planetary Science mission programs (solid lines) and projected budgets from the FY14 budget proposal (dashed lines).  Dotted lines show projected budgets from the FY13 budget proposal.  The Mars and Discovery programs are projected to have larger budgets in the FY14 proposal than in the FY13 proposal, while the Outer Planets program is projected to have smaller budgets.  The FY13 sequester may cause changes to the Congressionally-approved FY13 budgets, especially for the Outer Planets program.  Click on the image for a larger version.

The bad news:

The administration really, really does not want to fund a Europa mission.  The Outer Planets budget drops precipitously after FY14 and the end of the currently funded Cassini Solstice mission (but see below on Cassini’s future).  The budget documents state that, “The Europa Study Team submitted its final report in response to the recommendation by the decadal survey to immediately examine ways to reduce the cost of the mission… The budget, however, does not, and cannot, accommodate any of these mission concepts at this time. ... The Outer Planets Flagship project is not funded in FY 2014. NASA is not able to support development of an Outer Planets Flagship mission in the foreseeable future.  Instead, as described in the Mars Exploration Program section, available funding supports a future Mars program that is consistent with the first priority of the National Academies' decadal survey for planetary research. “

While Congress added significant new funds to the final FY13 NASA budget to begin work on a Europa mission, this funding is not continued in the new budget proposal.  [I suspect that this funding will be deleted from the FY13 budget as NASA adjusts budgets to account for the sequester (see this post for more).]

Continuing missions

As mentioned above, the proposed budget appears to fully fund all operating missions through the end of their currently approved missions.  Where a spacecraft is expected to still be operational at the end of the currently approved funding, the document states that future mission extensions can be funded if approved by NASA’s Senior Review process.  (This is a review by senior scientists to evaluate and rank the value of continued mission operations and funding.) 

For the Mars program, the budget proposal shows the operating budget for FY14 for each mission, and then has a large (>$80M per year) line item to support extended mission after that.  Other programs do not have this type of funding bucket to pull from for extended missions.  This may be particularly important for the Cassini mission, where the Outer Planets budget drops from a projected $79M (FY14) to around $25M by FY16. 

Per the budget documents, “The [Cassini] Solstice mission [now funded] will continue to operate and conduct data analysis through September 2015, at which time it will undergo competitive Senior Review with all other PSD operating missions.  Pending successful Senior Review in 2015, the mission will conclude in 2018, after another 155 revolutions around the planet, 54 flybys of Titan, and 11 flybys of Enceladus.”  However, if operations are to be funded from 2015 to 2018, NASA will need to find new funds to support Cassini.

Editorial Thoughts:  When I started this blog, I decided it would not be an advocacy blog.  Other organizations, particularly the Planetary Society, do an excellent job of advocacy.  As you can read on the Planetary Society blog, the reaction to this budget is not positive.  (See 2014 NASA Budget Cuts $200 million from Planetary Science -- Again and Bad Budget News for NASA's Planetary Exploration Program.)

I’m pleased to see the increase to the Discovery program that will increase the number of missions that will fly per decade.  This has been an incredibly successful program; the whack the program took in the FY13 proposed budget, if maintained, would have been devastating.

I’m disappointed to see the budget ruling out any chance for a Europa mission, but I had expected this.  The administration has decided to put its planetary Flagship (>$1B missions) dollars into Mars.  I hope that Congress continues to push for funding for a Europa mission and inserting it into the budget.  I really want to see the Europa Clipper mission fly.

I am worried about the future of the Cassini mission.  While the budget document talks about the possibility of an extended mission to 2018, there isn’t a budget bucket to pull the dollars from.  My experience with budgets over a couple of careers has been to view money as either there or not.  So I am worried and hope that my worry will prove to be for naught.  Here is how the budget document describes what a further extension of the Cassini mission would do: “In 2017, an encounter with Titan will change its orbit in such a way that, at closest approach to Saturn, it will be only 3,000 kilometers above the planet’s cloud tops, and below the inner edge of the D ring. This sequence of approximately 15 ‘proximal orbits’ will provide an opportunity for an entirely different mission for the Cassini spacecraft, investigating science questions never anticipated at the time Cassini was launched. Cassini completed its prime mission in July 2008, completed its Equinox extended mission in July 2010, and began the Solstice extended mission in October 2010. The Cassini mission will end when another encounter with Titan will send the Cassini probe into Saturn’s atmosphere.”  What is at stake is the ability for the Cassini mission to begin an entirely new mission in its close orbits that will capture much of the science that the Juno mission will for Jupiter.

More Information

The complete NASA budget document (very long) can be read here

For summaries of the overall NASA budget, see Space Policy Online and Space Politics

Changes in budget projects from different proposed budgets. Compared to the FY11 budget projections, actual budget have been much smaller with steep declines forecasted in the FY12 and FY13 budgets.  The FY14 projects are an increase compared to the FY13 projections.

Actual (FY10-12) and projected budgets (FY13 and beyond) budgets for NASA’s science divisions.  FY13 budgets are from the FY13 budget proposal and do not reflect either the final Congressional budget or the changes possible from the FY13 budget sequester.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Will the Sequester Take an Outsized Bite from Planetary Science at NASA?

You can read Casey's original post at the Planetary Society's blog here.  

Will the Sequester Take an Outsized Bite from Planetary Science at NASA?

Posted By Casey Dreier with the Planetary Society
Some troubling reports from SpaceNews, reporting that despite a $223 million boost from Congress, NASA's Planetary Science Division may not be allowed to use that money so the agency can prevent cuts in other programs.
NASA's Planetary Science Division, which Congress favored with a $200 million increase in the Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013 (H.R. 933) that President Barack Obama signed into law March 26, is expected to lose most if not all of that money as sequestration siphons some $900 million off the agency’s enacted $17.5 billion top line.
In order to protect higher-priority programs...NASA will be cutting lower-priority programs, including planetary science, by more than 5 percent.
The article goes on to say that no one knows how much money Planetary Science will have (or not have) until the Agency's operating plan is submitted to Congress next month. Remember, this is the 2013 budget that passed Congress two weeks ago, not the 2014 proposal that will come out next week.
Obviously, this is hugely troubling news if this comes to pass. We're following this extremely closely. Congress made a strong statement of support for Planetary Science by rejecting the proposed cut this year. For NASA to "reprogram" that money out to other priorities would be heartbreaking.

Editorial Thoughts (by Van): I also read this Space News article.  If this story is correct, and the information comes from a presentation by NASA's James Green who is the head of NASA's Planetary Science program, this could be a way for the administration (the President's Office of Management and Budget and NASA's higher management levels) to undo Congress' allocation of additional funds to the Planetary Science budget.  (See this post by Casey.)

(In the United States, the President proposes budgets, but the Congress establishes final amounts (with the approval of the President since he must sign the spending bills).  However, the language of the sequester allows the administration to reprogram money among accounts with NASA (and other agencies) to preserve priority programs.)

Most of the funds in the Planetary Science budget are required for missions that are already flying or that are in development (the Mars Maven orbiter, the New Frontiers OSIRIS REx asteroid sample return mission, and the Discover Mars Insight geophysical station.)  Congress provided additional funds to the Discovery program ($425-$500M missions), which could allow the next mission selection to start in 2014 instead of 2015 (launch would occur about five years later).  Congress also provided additional funds to the Outer Planets budget specifically to begin serious definition work on an Europa mission.  

It is the Outer Planets funding that I suspect is most at risk.  Pulling in the next Discovery mission has relatively small impacts on future budgets since the mission would eventually be selected anyway.  The Europa mission would eventually require approximately an additional ~$2B in future funding above what the administration has planned in its NASA budgets.  Cutting a program that the administration isn't planning to do would be an easy path for it to take.  (But, obviously, not one I would support.)

Artist's image of the proposed Europa Clipper spacecraft.  Credit NASA/JPL-Cal Tech.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

What To Watch For in the 2014 Budget

Casey Drier is the Advocacy and Outreach Strategist for the Planetary Society.  He and I both follow the politics and budgets associated with NASA's Planetary Science program. Casey writes excellent commentaries on these topics, and he has kindly given me permission to repost his posts from the Planetary Society's blog on my post.  (The Planetary Society has also asked me to be a guest blogger, and you will see many of my posts on their site.)

Next week, the President will propose the budget for Fiscal Year 2014 and give projected budgets for the next five years.  As Casey points out below, NASA uses the projected budgets to determine which missions it can afford to develop.  While Congress may change budgets each year (and fortunately did so for FY13), NASA requires a stream of funding over several years to plan, develop, launch, and operate a planetary mission.

Casey posted a couple of weeks ago on the final Congressional action on the FY13 budget, which provided one year increases to several key budgets.  I've used the amounts in his post to update the graph below that shows actual, Congressionally approved budgets and the proposed out year budgets from the President's FY13 budget proposal released over a year ago.  (You can read what I wrote about the original FY13 budget here.)

Approved (solid lines) and proposed (dashed lines) funding for key NASA Planetary Science programs.  (Double click on the image for a larger version.)

Proposed out year funding will be replaced (and extended by one more year) in the FY14 budget to be released next week.  The Discovery program funds missions that cost $450-500M while the New Frontiers program funds missions that cost $750M-1B.  Mars and large outer planet missions are funded separately out of their own budgets.

I've copied Casey's post from yesterday on what to watch for in the FY14 budget proposal below.  You can read the original here.

Casey Dreier

Mark your calendars, people.
In less than a week – April 10th – the White House will release its proposed budget for 2014. Even though Congress ultimately approves federal spending, this is a very important document for NASA for the following reasons:
  1. Unlike Congressional budgets, the White House will project spending levels for the next five years. This helps agencies plan development for multi-year programs (like, say, space missions).
  2. NASA works for the Administration, so funding priorities in the President's budget are the official priorities of the Agency. This means that no civil servant can speak against the budget once its been released. Only Congress can modify the numbers.
  3. For non-politicized issues, the President's budget numbers effectively create an anchoring bias against which any changes are measured (i.e. it's very hard to restore the full amount to a division that receives a cut).
Here's what to watch for:
Will Planetary Science see funding restored?
Last year, the White House requested a $309 million cut to NASA's Planetary Sciences Division, which manages all spacecraft and research for planetary missions. This was a big cut from the 2012 level that was the beginning of a decline that would last several years. The program was set to lose an additional $59 million in 2014.
But just a few weeks ago, Congress funded Planetary Science at a much higher rate than the White House requested for 2013. Will the President's budget acknowledge this, or will it stick to the original plan and continue to underfund the program?
A New Start For a Europa Mission?
Congress mandated that NASA set aside $75 million in 2013 on "formulation activities" for a mission to Jupiter's moon, Europa. This long-sought-after mission is not in the five-year budget projections, though, so NASA cannot make long-term spending decisions to actually build the thing. If funding is specified within the future budget of the Planetary Sciences Division, we'll know that the Administration has bought into the idea and we'll have a real mission.
How will NASA pay for its Asteroid Retrieval Mission?
Last week, someone leaked the news that NASA will use $100 million to start planning a mission to capture an asteroid and move it somewhere in the vicinity of the moon. It's unlikely that NASA's total budget will increase, so the money will have to come from areas within the Agency. Will it come out of the science budget? The Exploration budget? If so, what programs will be cut to enable this program?
What about those spy satellites?
Remember when the NRO donated two space-ready telescopes to NASA? Will there be funding to utilize this hardware and make a mission? If so, where does the money come from within the very tight Astrophysics budget?
Will Education funding be safe?
NASA recently issued internal memos suspending all major education and public outreach activities. This was due to the Sequester, but, similar to Planetary Science, the White House had requested a cut for the Education division last year, only to see Congress restore it. Will they cut education and public outreach officially?
We're always on the lookout for these. For example: last year, funding for scientific research in Planetary Science appeared to see an overall increase, but it was only because a previously unrelated robotics program had been moved into its purview.
We'll be parsing the details closely as soon as the document becomes public, sometime on Wednesday morning on the 10th. 

Please Provide Feedback

I have used your reactions that you have recorded at the end of each blog post to judge what topics you find more and less interesting.  (The ratings are 'Interesting!', 'So So', and 'Not Interesting'.)  Unfortunately, the tool that records the ratings appears to not be working correctly.  For the last post, there were four 'Interesting!' twelve hours after I posted, then just two the next day, then zero for several days, and now just one.  Unless readers are going back and changing their votes, the tally is randomly dropping votes.

I'll retain this tool for a bit longer in case it starts working again.  In the meantime, please leave comments letting me know your reaction to posts.

Thank you!