Wednesday, May 15, 2013

NASA's Planetary Science Budget Reportedly to be Hit -- Again

The sequester will hit NASA again, with large reported cuts to the Planetary Science program.  NASA's managers have stated for several months that further cuts to the planetary program were likely.  The sequester requires automatic cuts to most federal budgets of approximately 5%.  Congress has given the administration the freedom to apply the cuts disproportionately to lower priority programs within agencies to protect higher priority programs.  For NASA, the planetary program is lower priority, and cuts as large as 15% reportedly are being proposed.  

Mark Sykes, editor of the Planetary Exploration Newsletter, has received advanced information (leaks) on the proposed cuts to the budget for the remainder of fiscal year 2013 (which ends in October).  In recent years, Congress has rarely completed new budgets on time. Agencies have operated under continuing resolutions for months into the following fiscal year, so these budget levels, if they stand, could continue well into FY14.

The administration is expected to release its proposed sequester-adjusted budget for NASA later this month.  It has to notify Congress of the proposed cuts, but it's not clear to me whether Congress can object or if it would formally do so.  (Several representatives and senators have issued statements warning the administration not to disproportionately cut the Planetary Science program, but this is not formal Congressional action.)  The cuts reduce planetary spending substantially below to the recently passed NASA planetary budget for FY13 that was signed into law by President Obama.

The only good news in the budget changes is that $67M would be spent to further studies on a mission to Europa.  However, the President's proposed budget for FY14 has no money for this program, so this could be a one year project.  (As I understand the rules of the sequester, whole programs in enacted budgets cannot be eliminated, so the administration may not have had the freedom to cut the Europa mission studies.)

To pay for the Europa studies, the sequester-adjusted budget would cut the Discovery program (missions <$500M) by 33% and the New Frontiers program (missions ~$1B) by 7%.  The Discovery program cuts would, I think, delay the start of the competition for the next mission from early next year to sometime in the future.  (I don't know if the cuts are large enough to impact to delay the current Discovery mission in development -- the Mars InSight geophysical station -- or not.  Sykes does not mention any slip.)  The research and analysis budget that supports the scientific community that analyzes planetary data would be cut by 9% and could cause scientists without funding to leave the field.  (All cut percentages are relative to the current approved Planetary Science budget for FY13 that was passed by Congress.)

Cuts to programs could have potentially larger impacts than the simple percentages imply because they must be applied in the few months remaining in this fiscal year.

You can read the full details of the proposed cuts at the Planetary Exploration Newsletter site.  (I read this newsletter regularly and recommend it to you.)


  1. It is so unfortunate to see this playing out. The Solar System contains numerous objects that have the gravest implications for our understanding of how Life may emerge in the Universe. The icy Moons of the outer gas giants present humanity with a profoundly complex set of systems, rich with potentials for great scientific breakthroughs, myriad in their weird diversity. Surely these destinations should be the top priority of NASA?

    Instead we watch the spectacle of NASA planners groping awkwardly in the gloom of intellectual shadow for a purpose, a mission, for their Congressional Mandate SLS rocket. First a farcical asteroid flyby, then an L2 space station, now a small asteroid retrieval. A curious ad hoc inventiveness unfolds. Meanwhile, the real mysteries and destinations of the Solar System go unexplored, a mere sliver of the agencies budget left over for these noble endeavors, while Billions a year are squandered on SLS, ISS and at least half a dozen major field centers that need immediate closure. JPL should be the crown jewel and receive the lions share of the entire NASA budget. And the remaining parts of the agency tasked with developing the technologies to support a plethora of advanced unmanned planetary missions. Cassini class systems launches will become an annual event. Such are the rambling fantasies of a tired old planetary junkie... in dizzying dismay we gazers of distant spheres crumble to our knees and weep, for now we know that those distant orbs of mystery shall never be revealed to us in our lifetimes.

  2. The Keystone GarterMay 26, 2013 at 10:24 AM

    A major objection of VASIMR scale-up has been where to et such a large power source from. I'd guess the simplest answer is to have a charging station of some sort, near the Sun. Certianly within the Venus orbit. Here, batteries or fly-wheels or something else could be charged, that would provide a continuous power source to a VASIMR craft. Sunlight captured with solar cells or perhaps a lens or mirror system could focus the rays to heat something...need lots of radiators for such a system.