Wednesday, January 15, 2014

NASA Budget: Will there be money for the mortgage payments?

Correction: Casey Drier at the Planetary Society and a reader point out that my previous version of this post was in error regarding the Planetary Science Research and Analysis budget.  All of the President's requested $130M will be funded in this new final budget.  My confusion came from the final budget document not listing the all spending categories within the Planetary Science Research budget (of which the Research and Analysis budget is one part).  There will also be no sequestration this year to reduce the funding approved by Congress.  [I always welcome corrections from readers; if you see an error, please let me know.]

The two political parties in Congress have agreed on a budget for the US federal government for Fiscal Year 2014.  While the President’s request for NASA’s Planetary Science budget was $1.218B, Congress has settled on $1.345B, an increase of $127.5M.  However, there appears to be some significant downsides to the budget (at least from the initial information).

The winners in the final budget will be the accounts to fund future missions as shown by the chart below.  The key budget increases are to pay for the 2020 Mars rover (~$55M increase), accelerate the start of the next Discovery mission (NASA's smallest category of planetary missions), and $80M for continued detailed studies of a Europa mission.

Changes in budgets that pay for future planetary mission development from Fiscal Year 2013, the President's FY14 budget request, and the final Congressional budget.

What’s not clear is where the funds to develop the next Discovery mission ($425M to $500M) and Europa mission will come from.  NASA could trade its planned next New Frontiers mission (~$1B) for the Discovery mission.  Beyond that, NASA’s expected planetary budgets are already committed to pay for approved missions: the Mars InSight geophysical station (Discovery program mission), the asteroid OSIRIS-Rex sample return (New Frontiers program mission), and the Mars 2020 rover.  Developing a Europa mission would require several additional hundreds of millions of dollars a year.  If increasing the planetary budget in future years is Congress’ intent, then this would be welcome news.   Otherwise, Congress is making down payments for missions that NASA would not have the budget to pay for (those mortgage payments referred to in the title of this post).

Expected future budgets (dashed lines) would not support both the development a Discovery program (~$425-500M) and a New Frontiers program (~$1B) mission later in this decade or a Europa mission.  Most funds later in this decade will shift to developing the Mars 2020 rover mission.

Editorial thoughtsThe best way to reduce risk for a future planetary mission is to spend substantial funds up front to define the mission, do preliminary design, and develop critical technologies.  Together with funds from last year’s budget, the Europa Clipper mission will have had ~$160M in definition money before the mission is approved for development.  This should substantially reduce the risk to the mission exceeding its expected development costs of ~$2B.  However, $80M a year isn’t enough to carry the mission through development and to launch.  Several hundred million more dollars would need to be added to the budget to do this.

Budget Text:  I’ve copied key relevant passages from the budget document below.

For FY13, NASA attempted to shift (technically called ‘reprogramming and transferring’) significant funds from the Planetary Science budget approved by Congress to other accounts.  The following text seems to be a strong warning not to try that again: “Reprogramming and transfer authorities exist so that NASA can respond to unexpected, exigent circumstances that may arise during the fiscal year, not so that NASA can pursue its internal priorities at the expense of congressional direction. If NASA persists in abusing its reprogramming and transfer authorities, those authorities will be eliminated in future appropriations acts.”

Planetary Science  [budget total]…………..$1,345,000,000

“Planetary Science.-In lieu of any amounts included for specific Planetary Science activities in the House and Senate reports, the agreement provides $130,000,000 for Research and Analysis; up to $40,500,000 for Near Earth Object Observation; $285,000,000 for Discovery; $258,000,000 for New Frontiers, including $218,700,000 for OSIRIS-REx; $288,000,000 for Mars Exploration, including $65,000,000 for the development of the Mars 2020 Rover; $159,000,000 for Outer Planets, including $80,000,000 for a Jupiter Europa mission as described in the House report; and $146,000,000 for Technology, including up to the requested level for Plutonium-238 production.

“NASA shall use the funds provided for the Discovery program to support extended operations for the Messenger program and to increase the tempo by which Announcements of Opportunity (AOs) are released and missions are selected from those AOs. NASA is encouraged to initiate a new Discovery AO no later than May I, 2014 with final phase two selection and award of one or more missions by September, 2015.”


  1. Thanks for the analysis. While I share general concern about R&A, I think the specific concern here is due to budget language opacity and multiple things with similar names.

    The NASA FY13 budget ( has R&A as a part of "Planetary Science Research". PSR had a request of $220M+, but R&A per se only had $130M. So it's more or less on the mark.

    I agree with the concern about future budgets. Without administration support it's hard to get long-term projects going, and while Congress could come back year after year with augmentations it's hard to plan with that. The release of the President's next budget request will indicate whether we're in for another year (or more) of this or if there's been some convergence on the planetary budget between NASA, OMB, and Congress. Fingers crossed.

  2. Andy- Thanks for pointing out the source of my confusion and mistake.

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