Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A Great Proposed Budget for Planetary Science

The Trump administration has released its first full budget proposal for the federal government, including NASA.  While many science programs throughout many agencies face recommended cuts (see these analyses by the journals Science and Nature), NASA’s science programs generally fared well.  The Planetary Science program fares particularly well.  Several satellite missions and research programs in the Earth Sciences program that focus on climate change and carbon monitoring, by contrast, face termination.  NASA’s Astrophysics (including the James Webb Space Telescope) and Heliophysics programs are projected to have flat budgets into the future.

Past and proposed spending for NASA science programs.  The Planetary Science program is the only program proposed to receive a major increase.
For fans of planetary exploration, I think it’s time to pop the champagne.  The proposed budget takes the NASA program to new spending heights.  While much of the proposed Trump budget seems likely to get mauled by Congress, the latter’s strong support for the planetary program implies that this program’s proposed increase may become reality.

The budget documents provide two sets of numbers.  The first, and most important, are specific requested amounts for Congress to approve for the Fiscal Year 2018, which starts October 1, 2017.  The second set of numbers are projected notional budgets for FY19 to FY22.  This provide guidance for future years and is important because NASA’s managers cannot plan programs that aren’t projected to be funded in the out years.

Past and proposed budgets for the planetary science programs that develop and operate missions.  It is normal for budget lines to wax and wane as the development of individual missions ramp up their spending leading to launch followed by a ramp down as another program's missions approaches peak funding.  In the planning period, Mars program funding ramps down as the 2020 rover development completes followed by an increase to support a follow on mission.  The Discovery program ramps up to support development of the Lucy and Psyche missions with the start of a second ramp for a follow on mission.  The New Frontiers program ramps down following the launch of the OSIRIS-REx mission followed by a ramp up for a new mission.  The Outer Planets and Ocean Worlds program, which is dominated by spending to develop the Europa Clipper mission is project to have erratic swings not explained in the budget documents.

Here are some of the highlights of the proposed Planetary Science budget:

Every single mission in flight that is expected to still be operating next year (rest in peace Cassini and Dawn) is funded for the next year.  Four missions are projected to remain funded for a further five years: the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return spacecraft, and the Curiosity rover.  The Juno mission is projected to be funded through 2020, which would allow the mission to complete most of its originally planned orbits.  The New Horizon mission is funded through its encounter with the small Kuiper Belt object, 2014 MU69 in 2019.  However, the Opportunity rover is forecasted to be funded only through 2018 and the Mars Odyssey Orbiter through 2019.  The budget documents don’t give an explanation for the limited funding for these two missions; perhaps this is an expectation that these aged craft will not live forever.

All mission currently in development are funded including the Mars 2020 rover, the Europa Clipper mission, and three Discovery missions: the InSight Mars geophysics station and the Lucy and Psyche asteroid missions.  Funding is projected to develop the next New Frontiers mission to be selected in late 2018 or 2019 and launched in the mid-2020s.

The projected budget shows funding for NASA to select and begin development of the next Discovery mission after the Lucy and Psyche missions are launched.  Given the timing of the selection in the early 2020s, launch would likely be in the mid-2020s.  The budget request also forecast the start of development of a Mars mission that seems likely to launch in the mid-2020s.  While the budget document is silent on the nature of this mission, NASA has said that it would like to fly a new orbiter to replace the venerable Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

If you want to look for disappointing news in the proposed planetary budget, I found two.  The document projects a funding ramp for the Europa Clipper mission that would enable a launch in the mid- to late-2020s.  This is in direct conflict with Congress’ stated goal that the mission should launch by 2022.  The requested funding for FY18 would support the 2022 launch.  The key will be whether funding on follow on years is greater than that projected in the budget document.  For example, the projected spending in FY19 is $303 million versus $580 million needed to launch in 2022.

The other potentially disappointing news is that the budget request explicitly rules out starting development of the congressionally mandated Europa lander, which would follow the Europa Clipper mission. 

To meet Congress’ stated goals for the Europa Clipper and lander missions, the planetary science budget would need to grow substantially starting in fiscal year 2019, or other missions within this budget would have to be cut.

A look at the larger federal budget situation does suggest a problem with the rosy picture for planetary exploration in this budget.  There are at least three camps in Washington DC with vastly different views on what the federal budget should look like: the Trump administration, Congressional Republicans (who may have fractured views of their own), and Congressional Democrats.  The overall Trump federal budget proposes radical changes to spending for many agencies (NASA among the few excluded).  It seems likely that resolving these differences may extend well into 2018 or perhaps never.  (Resolving much smaller differences for the FY17 budget occurred eight months after the start of the fiscal year.)  The standard way to deal with impasses is to pass a continuing resolution that extends the previous year’s funding into the next for a period of time (and sometimes the entire year).  Several missions in development – the Mars 2020 rover, Europa Clipper, and Lucy asteroid mission – require large increases in their budgets next year to stay on track.  Long-lasting continuing resolutions could cause these missions to miss their launch dates, raising the overall costs of the missions.

The budget document did have one surprising piece of potential news.  The Psyche asteroid orbiter mission has been slated to launch in 2023 and arrive at its metallic namesake in 2030.  The mission’s websites state these dates.  However, the budget document states that the mission will launch in 2022 and arrive at its destination in 2025.  A typo or more aggressive funding allowing an earlier launch and arrival?