Tuesday, February 3, 2015

2016 Budget: Great Policy Document and A Much Better Budget

Note: This version of this post corrects an error on the final figure that originally showed the wrong years.

Every year, the President proposes a budget for the federal government.  This massive document serves two purposes.  First, it lays out the President’s proposed policies and priorities and therefore is a political document.  Second, it specifies in great detail the spending needed to implement those policies for the coming year and therefore is also a budget document.  Congress then takes – or ignores – both the policy and budget proposals and writes its own budget based on its policy priorities for the coming year.  (Because the final budget laws must be signed by the President, he retains considerable influence over the final budget.)

The 2016 proposed budget plan would provide increases in most science programs over the rest of the decade. All figures are based on either actual prior year budgets or budgets proposed in the FY 2016 President’s Budget Request Summary for NASA. 
This figure shows actual and budget projections for NASA Planetary Science program from the President's budget proposals over the last several years.  The FY12 and FY13 budgets proposed steep cuts in the planetary program.  Budgets since then have proposed increasingly robust future budgets.

The 53 pages that detail the proposed Fiscal Year 2016 NASA Planetary Science budget contains both policy and budget minutia.  The policies implicit in the budget are great news for the future of planetary exploration: 
  • A dedicated mission to explore Europa is approved as a formal mission.  (In federal budget speak, the mission gets its New Start approval.)  Finally!
  • The projected budgets for the mid-cost ($700M to $1B) New Frontiers and low-cost ($450M) Discovery programs show healthy increases in the projected for 2017 to 2020.  If carried through in future budgets, these increases would result in several more planetary missions than was assumed in last year’s proposed budget.

As a one year, Fiscal Year 16, proposed $1.36B budget, the document asks for a top line Planetary Science Division budget that is a small 5.4% cut from the actual FY15 budget that was approved by Congress.  The budget includes sufficient funds to continue all missions in development.  It also includes funds to continue all missions in flight except two (more on this in a moment).  Among those missions is the Cassini mission at Saturn that would be funded through its planned 2017 end of mission rather than be terminated as previous years’ budget proposals had implied.

Actual and FY16 projected budgets for each of the major programs that fund current missions in flight and develop new missions.  The major changes in each budget trace the peak funding ramps and declines as major missions are developed.  See the next figure for details on spending ramps for individual missions in development.

So net, the proposed FY16 budget continues a strong program but incorporates important small cuts.  For the past two years, Congress has added $80M and $85M to NASA’s proposed budgets to work on a mission to Europa.  The proposed FY16 would reduce funding from the FY15 total Europa budget of $100M to $30M.  The FY16 budget proposal, like the FY15 proposal, proposes to terminate the Mars Opportunity Rover and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter missions, even though their spacecraft remain healthy, for a savings of $26M.

It seems likely that Congress will ignore these proposed cuts and the final budget will have more than $30M for the Europa mission and will continue the two missions proposed for termination.  Congress did so last year when a tiny Europa budget was proposed and the same two missions were proposed for termination. 

(In other parts of NASA’s proposed budget, funding continues for the Solar Probe Plus mission that will launch in 2018 and repeatedly skim the top of the sun’s atmosphere.  NASA would also begin pre-mission work on the WFIRST telescope that could also study exoplanets in orbit around other stars as well as conduct its primary mission to study the universe’s dark energy with an expected launch by 2020.)

Proposed spending for missions in development.  The OSIRIS-ReX asteroid sample return mission and the InSight Mars lander will launch in 2016.

For future planetary mission plans, the real news is not in the proposed FY16 budget (business as planned with the addition of formally starting work on the Europa mission) but in the projected 2017 to 2020 budgets.  These projected budgets lay out the vision for NASA's road map of future missions.

To develop a mission, NASA’s managers need to keep track of both the current year budget (dollars they can actually spend) and those projected budgets.  They cannot undertake a new future mission if funding is not projected to support it.  While each current year’s budget is passed by Congress, projected budgets are set only by officials deep within the President’s budget office.  It was the lack of projected future funding for the Europa mission in past projected budgets, for example, that prevented NASA from committing to this mission even though Congress repeatedly added significant funding that could be spent in each year.

The FY16 budget projections add a continuing stream of funding for the Europa mission while adding funding for the Discovery and New Frontiers mission programs.

While the FY16 budget gives the Europa mission its New Start, the funding ramp through 2020 is slow.  The budget document doesn’t say anything about when the mission would launch or its expected total cost.  (I have heard, though, that NASA concluded that a bargain basement $1B mission wouldn’t meet the scientific goals.)  Based on the slow ramp (even if Congress increases it somewhat as I expect), the launch seems likely to occur in the mid-2020s.  To develop a mission expected to cost somewhere around $2B based on mission concepts, annual budgets of several hundred million dollars are needed.  This budget bulge would not happen until after 2020.  If the eventual mission launches on the SLS rockets NASA is currently developing, flight time to Europa would be about two years versus six and a half years if launch on a commercial rocket.  While the SLS seems like the obvious choice, this is an expensive system that has yet to complete development and prove itself while the commercial launchers exist today.

If the projected Europa mission ramp is slow, the projected budgets for NASA’s low-cost Discovery missions show healthy increases.  For the past decade, NASA’s budgets allowed it to only select new Discovery missions every five years.  Under the projected budgets, new missions could be selected every two to three years, re-creating the vigorous Discovery program that existed in the 1990s and early 2000s.  NASA’s managers are currently running a competition to select the thirteenth Discovery mission.  The budget documents state that the next selection would begin in FY17.  (Scientists can propose Discovery missions to study any solar system object except the sun and Earth, which are covered in other NASA programs.)

The mid-cost New Frontiers program would also receive more funds under the projected budgets.  While last year’s budget document did not foresee the selection of any new missions in its projected budgets, this year’s document states that the selection would begin in 2016.  Given the slow ramp in projected budgets, though, the selected mission would seem likely to launch in 2022 or later.  (Scientists only can propose New Frontiers missions from a pre-selected list of high priority missions developed by the last Decadal Survey that currently includes: Comet Surface Sample Return, Lunar South Pole-Aitken Basin Sample Return, Saturn Probe, Trojan Asteroid Tour and Rendezvous, and Venus In-situ Explorer.)

To return to the big picture, this is the first proposed budget for NASA’s planetary program that I’ve been excited about in some time.  It addresses all the priority missions and programs identified by the scientific community in the last Decadal Survey.  There is the niggling worry that seeing this program executed will require continued support by the President’s budget officials and Congress for the next decade.   The FY16 budget – once Congress fixes those small proposed cuts – is a bold vision for what I believe will be an exciting decade leading to the launch of several new planetary missions.


  1. This is great news. Let’s hope congress funds the Europa mission aggressively and it launches on the Aries V (SLS).
    I hope the future funding holds for Discovery and NF. It would be nice to see a regular cadence for these type missions again.

  2. The Keystone GarterMarch 10, 2015 at 9:39 AM

    Polishing off the Sensor Compendium. I have an outline for imaging WMD labs in the distant future. The idea would be to look for fridge or bathroom or house sized caves or aggregations of 2075 industrial equipment, inside Earth. I'm thinking an AI lab would be able to be imaged, but a biolab maybe could be made too small.
    I'm not aware of any regular neutrino sources. We would have to make an irregular one regular, or create particle guns that could effect such. We take these guns on the surface or in LEO or in GEO, and we shoot them through Earth at an Ice Moon.
    I'm not familiar with many neutrino sensor types. Perhaps chemistry will uncover a good one. Plastic scintillators all over Earth would be an efficient use of oil. A basic strategy seems to be to use lots of water or ice to image the Cerenkov Radiation that follows a neutrino hit. A recent paper suggests ice not so good. So you use Enceladus, or Callisto, or Europa, as neutrino beam detectors. You shoot a neutrino gun to your ice moon neutrino array, and I think you can image subterranean WMD labs. Perhaps you can even image such labs under construction on Alpha Centauri from Enceladus. I'm not sure if the Ice Moons need uniform ater or if their water is too salty or something. If ice works that is even better. I'd like to see water harbouring Ice Moons be scouted as Cerenkov Detectors. I'd like to see the USA's non-laser particle beam weaponry be rechanneled to dual use applications that also may lead to the generation of a regular neutrino beam, or some sort of filter for neutrino sources of natural origin that effects the same.

  3. The Keystone GarterMarch 16, 2015 at 10:23 AM

    ...I hope high energy neutrinos don't cause cancer. I guess the lobby here is for progressively better geoimaging using neutrinos.
    Big fan of PRIDE concept here.
    For the asteroid redirect mission, there are 3 main types of asteroids: Stony, Metal, Carbonaceous.
    The stony seems useless. Maybe silicon signatures should rule out such asteroids. I like mining the Moon, but many like asteroids. For this reason, getting an asteroid with an ore body would be useful. Carbonaceous asteroids are useful if they have a little H2O for the purposes of looking for life signatures; I see new microscopes being invented just for the mission. Also, dark asteroids can be used to prototype the various albedo-altering asteroid contingencies. Lenses, lasers, sprinkling soot, small collisions meant to raise a plume...
    For this reason if you go carbon, try to get a really dark patch and try to get a bit of H20.
    Ideally, though it may be hard to handle and risk fragmentation, volatiles are good to have. Presumably an asteroid that is the product of a weak collision or had a little comet hit it and hasn't been near the Sun, is good.
    I'm not too worried about whether an iron or carbon asteroid is picked because you get the other type the 2nd capture mission. Just not a rocky one.