Thursday, December 19, 2013

NASA’s Planetary New Mission Woes

NASA’s planetary science program depends on regular missions to solar system bodies to gather data.  A combination of budget cuts and previous commitments to develop missions currently in the pipeline means that development of follow on missions may slow to a crawl.  In this post I look at the current situation and NASA’s plans and then look at options the agency may consider if budgets remain tight into the next decade.

Space News recently carried an article that described how the mission roadmap laid out in the recently completed Decadal Survey was no longer affordable given cuts to NASA’s budgets.  A single large mission threatens to crowd out the start of smaller missions that would enable regular flights.  Space News quotes a leading scientist in the field who says, “The result is ‘a strategic program that is drawn out in a way that is acceptable to no one’”.

The roadmap in question is for NASA’s heliophysics program, which has a budget about half the size of the planetary science program.  The large mission is the Flagship Solar Probe Plus spacecraft that will make multiple close passes to the sun and is expect to have a cost of $1.2B to $1.4B.

However, by changing a few names and details, the article could have been written for NASA’s planetary, astronomy and astrophysics, or Earth science programs.  Whether you agree with the politics or not, the budgets for many federal discretionary programs are shrinking.  NASA’s budget has not been spared, and the science program budgets are feeling the effects.  (For a good summary of the planetary program’s budget woes, see these posts by Casey Drier on the Planetary Society’s blog: historical trends and current issues.)

Earlier this decade, NASA completed roadmap plans (called Decadal Surveys) for each of its science programs (except the Earth science program, which completed its Survey in 2007).  All the Surveys were told to base their plans on projected budgets that turned out to be wildly optimistic.  As a result, the plans included a mixture of large and smaller missions that would ensure frequent flights to explore multiple targets.  For the Planetary Science division, the authors of the Decadal Survey recommended for the coming decade development of one to two Flagship missions (in the $1.5B to $2.5B range), two new Frontiers missions (~$1B), and several Discovery missions (~$500M).

If the Planetary Science Division’s budgets had remained at the levels projected when the Survey was drafted, we would be looking forward to an incredibly rich program of missions to many solar system destinations.

Now following the budget cuts, projected budget shows that the Planetary Science Division will struggle to keep missions in development in all three of its size classes.  Instead of starting development for six or more new flights to the planets, we will see just three new missions launch through the end of the decade and perhaps only one in the first part of the next decade.

Approved missions in development (solid lines) as well as projected funding for future missions (dashed lines).

Through 2015, the planetary program will simultaneously develop two smaller missions, the New Frontiers OSIRIS-REx that will return a sample from a primitive asteroid and the Discovery InSight mission that will study the interior of Mars

Actual (solid lines) and projected (dashed lines) funding for NASA's major mission categories.

For the Planetary Science Division, the squeeze will begin in 2016 when it begins to heavily spend on the development of the $1.5B 2020 Mars rover.  To afford this large mission, the budget plans show cuts in budgets elsewhere.  In 2015, the budget for outer planet missions that funds the continued operation of the Cassini orbiter at Saturn is projected to substantially shrink.  (See my post here on the potential early termination of the Cassini mission.)  At the same time, funding to develop future New Frontiers and Discovery missions drops dramatically.

The problem NASA faces is compounded by the funding pattern missions in development follow.  While missions typically take four to five years to move from approval to launch, most the funding comes in the middle of years of development in what is known as peak funding.  To develop missions that will launch in the early part of the 2020s, NASA needs to be able to meet a peak funding level somewhat greater than $200M at the same time as the 2020 rover hits its (much higher) peak funding needs.

Based on the projected budgets, it appears from NASA’s budget documents that there just won’t be enough money to sustain mission in development in all three of its mission classes at the end of the decade.  However, if NASA were to combine projected funding for its New Frontiers and Discovery programs at the end of the decade, it appears that it could support development of one mission along with the 2020 rover.

Based on statements from the Planetary Science Division’s chief, Jim Green, at the just completed American Geophysical Union conference, that appears to be what NASA plans to do.  NASA will request proposals for the next (fourth in the series) New Frontiers mission around 2015.  NASA would then likely select the winning proposal in late 2016 or 2017.  Given approximately five years for development, the new mission likely would launch in 2021 or 2022. 

In case the budget situation improves, NASA plans to also complete the preparatory work to request proposals for a Discovery program in the same time frame.

However, the plan for developing a New Frontiers mission at the end of the decade depends on the 2020 rover being developed at a cost near $1.5B.  That mission currently is in the early formulation stage and a final budget hasn’t been set.  If the rover costs come in substantially higher, then affording simultaneous development of a New Frontiers mission could be difficult at best and or impossible.

It takes so long to plan and develop planetary missions that NASA has limited options for restructuring its program of missions to deal with tightening budgets through the end of this decade.  But if fewer dollars to develop missions is the long term story, what other options could NASA explore?

Everyone agrees that having NASA’s planetary science program consumed by a single large mission creates too much risk (what if the mission is lost at launch?).  Because a single mission will necessarily explore just a single destination with a small suite of instruments, most of the scientists in the field will be starved for new data.  (The 2020 rover, for example, will not explore what drives global climate patterns, explore whether Venus was once habitable, or explore how the planets formed.)  NASA also needs to have a cadre of scientists and engineers who have participated in developing missions to become the leaders of future missions. That’s difficult to do with a single mission in development.

One idea that has been discussed within NASA has been to reduce the number of Flagship missions to enable funding more small missions.  There’s also been a history of Flagship missions regularly experiencing severe cost overruns, starving the rest of the science program.  NASA’s administrator, Charles Bolden, recently told a science advisory panel that NASA can’t afford Flagship missions any more.  NASA later explained that NASA was not abandoning Flagship mission and understands that some key science questions can only be tackled with these large missions.

My take is that NASA wants to limit its exposure to Flagship missions for the reasons given above.  At the same advisory panel meeting, the Associate Administrator for Science, John Grunsfeld, said he wanted to begin studies that would look at whether substantial portions of high priority Flagship missions could be done as New Frontiers missions (perhaps with a bump of 25% or 50% in the cost cap).

During the Decadal Survey process, a number of mission concepts were studied, (including all those that made the candidate list for New Frontiers missions).  No studies were done for New Frontiers-class missions to either Europa or Titan because these destinations were studied as Flagship-class missions.  (An analysis of missions for Enceladus suggested that a multi-flyby mission to explore its plumes might fit within a New Frontiers or a New Frontiers-plus budget although the full cost analysis was done for a more expensive Enceladus orbiter.) 

Could a New Frontiers mission be done for Europa?  The Decadal Survey analysis concluded that a multi-flyby mission for Jupiter’s moon Io could be flown as a New Frontiers mission. An Io mission would have to deal with the same key issues a Europa mission would face – requirements to host both remote sensing and in-situ instruments, the high radiation fields of the inner Jovian system, generating power far from the sun, and communicating large amounts of data back to Earth.  The Io Observer study results suggest that a New Frontiers mission for Europa is a credible concept to study.  However, compared to the proposed ~$2B Europa Clipper multi-flyby Flagship mission, many key questions about Europa couldn’t be addressed by a single New Frontiers mission.

I compared the instrument list of the Io Observed with the proposed instrument list of the Europa Clipper.  If a Europa New Frontiers carried a similar instruments as the Io mission, it might address the key questions for geology (a moderate resolution camera), surface composition (an imaging spectrometer and neutral mass spectrometer), and partially explore questions about the icy shell and ocean (gravity science, magnetometer, plasma spectrometer).  However, this would drop the power- and data-hungry ice penetrating radar and high resolution landing site reconnaissance instruments.  A New Frontiers mission also might make many fewer flybys than the 30+ planned for the Europa Clipper (the Io Observer concept assumed just six to ten flybys) and might return much less data per flyby.  (Note: A mission definition team would likely come up with a different list of instruments than I did in this simple thought experiment.)

Another possibility for NASA would be to include even cheaper missions than Discovery missions in its program mix.  A committee of scientists reviewing options for the heliophysics program recommended that NASA develop technology to enable scientific missions with very small spacecraft, SmallSats and CubeSats.  I have previously written about the potential and limitations for these small missions that could cost just a few $10Ms for SmallSats and $1Ms for CubeSats.  Because of the small size of these spacecraft, the science they could do would be limited.  However, several could be flown in a decade increasing the variety of science conducted.  Perhaps more importantly, these missions could be used to train a new generation of scientists and engineers to become leaders on larger missions.

Through the end of the decade, NASA’s planetary managers have limited options.  They can’t, for example, just dictate a Europa New Frontiers mission without first doing an intense analysis of the concept.  They can’t simply decide to introduce SmallSat missions before they know the designs are feasible, the technology is ready, and that there would be scientific value for the money spent.  For mission development in the next decade, NASA has time to fully evaluate these options.

If NASA has a similar budget for new mission development in the 2020s as it is projected to have the rest of the decade, then it would have an inflation-adjusted $5B to $6B over the decade.  With that funding, it could, for example, fly two to three New Frontiers or New Frontiers-plus missions and approximately four Discovery missions and perhaps several SmallSat missions.  It would not be as rich a program as we had in the plusher years of 2000 to 2012.  It could be a richer program than we seem likely to develop this decade.

Also, budgets are not fixed.  While we have seen that they can go down, they can also go up.  Even modest increases of $100M per year over the current projections of ~$1.2B per year would go a long way towards enabling a richer program this decade.  If you haven’t participated in the Planetary Society’s campaign to lobby for increased funding, I encourage you do so.

Appendix: Approved list of New Frontiers missions

One of the tasks for the Decadal Survey was to develop a list of missions that scientists could propose for competitions to select New Frontiers missions.  The Survey approved five missions for the next selection (New Frontiers 4) and approved an additional two for the selection after that (New Frontiers 5).  The latter are indicated with an asterisk.   NASA may consider expanding this list to partially fulfill the goals the Survey identified for recommended Flagship missions such as a mission to Europa (see above).

Inner Planets
   Venus Atmospheric Probe and Lander
   Lunar South Pole-Aitken Basin Sample Return
   *Lunar Geophysical Network

Small Bodies
   Comet Surface Sample Return
   Trojan Asteroid Tour and Rendezvous

Outer Solar System
   Saturn Atmospheric Probe
   *Io observer


  1. There may be some light at the end of the tunnel (decade) when SLS, Orion, Asteroid Redirect, James Webb, and Commercial Crew development are complete. If US involvement in Space Station ends in 2020 that will also free up significant capital.

  2. Thanks for a very well illustrated post.

    You said Everyone agrees that having NASA’s planetary science program consumed by a single large mission creates too much risk

    I dont think there has been any sort of universal voice saying that, in fact all the lobbying that Planetary Society is doing goes in exactly the opposite direction.

    Also, the prime contractors building the spacecraft ( theses are easy to look up .. ) apparently have quite a bit of influence over which missions get "selected" - 2020 Mars rover was "selected" regardless if scientific rationale was figured out or not.

  3. Anon 2 - Good point on stating tautologies; someone will always disagree with a statement. My bad.

    I've never seen a description of the behind the scenes discussions on the selection of the 2020 rover mission. I suspect it was selected because of some combination of: 1) it seemed a safe larger mission because it was largely rebuilding the Curiosity system to existing blueprints, 2) it was large enough to keep the lights on at JPL (a good goal!), 3) the immense popularity of the Curiosity mission, and 4) it could be interpreted as fulfilling the most visible priority of the Decadal Survey (at the time of the selection, there had not been a decision to cache samples).

  4. So, if your reasons 1) 2) and 3) are really the driving priorities for billion dollar missions maybe these should be more explicitly stated for SMD

    - we dont want risks
    - keep people employed
    - we like pretty pictures and PR

    science or lack of it will come last - assuming it fits ? Why pull out of ExoMars ?

    I thought everyone was still pretending that Decadal survey was driving the roadmaps.

    It would be really interesting to see the real behind the scenes of the 2020 Rover selection.

  5. Anon 2 - The last two science Flagship missions went well over budget, crowding out smaller missions. The 2020 rover represents a good mission with lower risk of really big overruns.

    The 2020 rover will do really good science and will fulfill the top Decadal Survey Flagship mission priority. I suspect that when it was approved that the OMB budget managers were saying we approved a really good science mission and not a $6B+ sample return program and the NASA guys were saying we got a really good science mission that also enables a sample return program if discoveries and budgets eventually enable it.

    Also, don't forget that the cancellation of Galileo was reversed to preserve JPL as a national resource not for science. That was the only argument that worked with the budget office. The political process and NASA science program managers can work in different ways. They certainly have different motivations.

  6. If you go back to see the articles and commentary after 2020 Rover ( and to lesser extent, InSight ) announcements, you will see that a lot of planetary science community is not happy at all with the continued focus on Mars that squeezes out ever other priority.
    And at the time of the rover announcement, everyone was saying that this is not the rover that scientific community called for in Decadal. Sample return was not part of it.

    They may try and turn this around going forward as planning progresses, but the fact remains, the selection was not made based on scientific priorities.

    The fraction of SMD budget that has been spent on Mars over last and ongoing decade cannot be explained away by any sort of scientific or technological rationale.

  7. I agree that the selection was not made on the basis of scientific priorities.

    I suspect that it was made at the most senior levels of NASA and in OMB (mid-level officials). PSD may have been told that they could either accept this mission or lose the money.

  8. I have to question your statement "Based on statements from the Planetary Science Division’s chief, Jim Green, at the just completed American Geophysical Union conference, that appears to be what NASA plans to do. NASA will request proposals for the next (fourth in the series) New Frontiers mission around 2015. NASA would then likely select the winning proposal in late 2016 or 2017. Given approximately five years for development, the new mission likely would launch in 2021 or 2022." I thought that the next AO up was Discovery?

  9. Anon 3 - It appears that NASA is prioritizing a New Frontiers mission new start over a Discovery mission new start. This is based both on Jim Green's comments at AGU and what Blackstar (a well informed almost insider observer) at NASA has said.

    I haven't seen an explanation on why New Frontiers appears to be getting the nod. Perhaps its because New Frontiers missions can tackle more fundamental questions about the solar system. Perhaps its because a New Frontiers mission can keep more of the planetary science and engineering community employed. Or perhaps its because if funding gets somewhat better, it's easier to squeeze in the less expensive Discovery mission.

  10. I'll venture a guess.

    IIRC the more recent Discovery solicitations have had a hard time sorting out missions that would do compelling science AND be realistically achievable AND not blow the cost cap. ISTR statements in the blogosphere to the effect that all the low-hanging fruit had already been plucked, etc.

    This is not to say that there aren't any. Without a more regular cadence of solicitations teams can't get feedback, refine their proposals, etc.

    OTOH, the most recent New Frontiers left 2 (AIUI) ready-for-prime-time proposals on the table (VISE & MoonRise). The feeling may be that New Frontiers is more ready than Discovery to go forward right now.

    Ah, well. Time and tide melt the snowman...


  11. Perhaps a case could be made to meld the Io Explorer concept as a later phase of Europa Clipper. After all the goals at Europa had been achieved, the spacecraft would then make as many passes past Io as available fuel and radiation tolerance would allow. With a billion dollar budget for a New Frontiers mission, that would go a long ways to funding the full projected two billion cost of the Clipper concept, and at least get the Clipper started in a timely manner.

  12. GClark: I think that the seriously easy stuff for the Discovery program has been done. I think there's still good Venus, asteroid, and comet missions. And if my sober-seeming mission architect contacts are right, maybe even an icy moon mission.

    Kim - the instruments for a rocky, volcanic world are generally different than those you'd want for an icy world. It would also be hard to migrate the Io Observers' orbit out to Europa.