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Mars Shaping Up as NASA Budget Battleground

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Feb-2012
Updated: 26-Feb-2012 07:20 PM

Mars is the Roman god of war, an apt connection as budget battles heat up with the release of NASA's FY2013 request.   Lines are being drawn in the space science community generally and among planetary scientists specifically as everyone fights for scarer resources.   Future plans for Mars probes are at the center of the debate.   All eyes are on Congress to see if it will save the planetary exploration budget and, if it does, what will be sacrificed in this zero-sum budget environment.

NASA's total budget would decline by only a small amount if Congress appropriates the President's request, but a $300 million cut to NASA's $1.5 billion planetary science budget is sparking controversy.  The complaints come both from those who believe that budget suffered because of overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and those who feel that NASA is trying to salvage some sort of robotic Mars exploration program at the expense of exploring other places in the solar system.

The cut from $1.5 billion to $1.2 billion means that NASA will not be able to fulfill its pledge to participate with the European Space Agency (ESA) in a series of missions that ultimately would return a sample of Mars to Earth.   NASA informed ESA that it could not participate in missions planned for 2016 and 2018 that were to kick off that effort.  The decision resulted in a storm of controversy in the planetary science community that blamed overruns on JWST for the reduced funding for planetary science.   JWST is part of NASA's astrophysics program.  Planetary science and astrophysics are two of the four disciplines within NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD).   The other two are earth science and heliophysics (studies of the Sun and the solar-terrestrial environment).  The budget request for all of astrophysics -- including JWST, which is bookkept separately -- would increase substantially, and earth science and heliophysics would increase slightly.  Only planetary science would decrease in FY2013.

NASA officials have been careful not to make any connection publicly between JWST overruns and cuts to the planetary science budget.   They insist that several planetary science missions have completed their development phases or soon will.  Thus, a reduction should not be surprising, they say.  That argument has not assuaged those who draw the battle line between JWST and planetary science.

But a new front opened on Thursday during a teleconference meeting of the NASA Advisory Council's (NAC's) Planetary Science Subcommittee.   Divisions within the planetary science community became apparent there, and may continue on Monday and Tuesday at a meeting of NASA's Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG) near Dulles Airport outside Washington, DC.

At Thursday's meeting, advocates of exploring the outer planets -- those that lie beyond Mars and the asteroid belt -- were particularly vocal in arguing that the recent National Research Council's Decadal Survey for planetary science gave them the next priority if the Mars sample return missions did not proceed.   Instead, they complained, NASA is continuing to talk about Mars missions, albeit smaller than those that were planned with ESA.    On February 13, the day the budget request was released, for example, SMD Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld spoke about options for sending smaller probes to Mars in 2016 and 2018 despite cancellation of the plans with ESA for the large "flagship" (most expensive) missions.   Grunsfeld also restated what NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said earlier in the day that the agency is developing an "integrated strategy" for Mars exploration that responds to the needs of both science and human exploration goals at NASA.

Jim Green, director of SMD's planetary science division, confirmed at Thursday's meeting that a Mars sample return mission will not be pursued in this decade.  He also repeated what he has said at previous meetings of this subcommittee that the planetary science community needs to make its case that the return on investment for planetary exploration is worth the cost.  NASA's budget includes a four-year projection that shows planetary science will continue on a downward trajectory through FY2015 to $1.1 billion and then receive very slight increases the next two years.  By FY2017 the budget ekes its way back to the $1.2 billion it would get in FY2013. 

NRC Decadal Surveys are performed for each of the space and earth science disciplines every 10 years (a decade) and prioritize what science questions are most important and identify missions to answer them.  The Decadal Surveys are often referred to as "bibles" because NASA and Congress usually follow their recommendations faithfully since they represent a consensus of the relevant science community.    The planetary science Decadal Survey stated that the Mars sample return missions had top priority for flagship missions and if they did not proceed, then NASA should go to the next on the list -- a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa called the Jupiter Europa Orbiter (JEO).   Europa has an icy crust that scientists believe covers a liquid ocean of water.   In the "follow the water" quest for extraterrestrial life, it is a very high priority target for outer planet exploration. 

Green was challenged at Thursday's meeting to explain why NASA is talking about smaller Mars missions instead of focusing on a Europa mission as the Decadal Survey recommended.   He insisted that NASA is following the Decadal Survey recommendations because the 2016 Mars mission it is considering already had been proposed as a candidate for a small Discovery-class mission, and the agency is not trying to add a medium-class New Frontiers mission for Mars.  

The Decadal Survey stipulated that if JEO was to proceed, its costs would have to be sharply reduced.  Robert Pappalardo of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a NASA-funded federal research and development center operated by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, CA, is heading a study to do just that.   He stated at Thursday's meeting that his group has come up with "multiple fly-by missions that will come in at the cost target" and demanded to know why NASA is "abandoning the Decadal Survey recommendation."

Green replied that looking at the budget through FY2017, there is "no room for a flagship level activity," but Pappalardo countered that the mission his study committee has developed is "sub-flagship now."  Two other studies also are underway for outer planet flagship missions and Green replied that until all three go through an independent cost review, NASA cannot make any announcement about what might be the next flagship mission.

Others at the meeting pointed out that when NASA's Cassini mission, currently studying Saturn, completes operations in 2018, it will be the end of the outer planets flagship program.  One called the FY2013 budget request a "going out of business" scenario for outer planets exploration.  Green did not disagree.

The United States is the only country to launch probes to the outer planets, although ESA built the Huygens probe that landed on Saturn's moon Titan as part of NASA's Cassini program.   ESA is considering a mission to Jupiter and its moons called JUICE.  It is one of three proposals vying for selection as ESA's next major space science program. A decision is expected this spring.  Green said that if JUICE is selected by ESA, NASA might be able to participate in a small way.  Green complimented ESA for reacting "with vision and not with anger" to NASA backing out of the Mars 2016 and 2018 missions and its willingness to continue considering cooperation with NASA.

JPL, which builds many of NASA's planetary exploration spacecraft, and planetary exploration in general are popular in Congress.   Several of the scientists at Thursday's meeting spoke confidently that Congress will restore funding for planetary science. The debate may well have a different dimension on Capitol Hill.  At a February 17 hearing on the President's FY2013 budget request for research and development, Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, asked why NASA was singled out for "unequal treatment."  He said the request proposes increases for all the agencies within the committee's jurisdiction except NASA.  He and ranking member Eddie Bernie Johnson (D-TX) both complained about the cuts to the Mars budget.

Getting Congress to increase NASA funding above the President's request will be challenging to say the least in the current budget environment.  For FY2012, Congress cut NASA's request from $18.72 billion to $17.77 billion (after a $30 million across-the-board rescission).   However, Congress might make other choices on how to allocate the funds it provides to NASA.  The question then is what NASA programs might suffer in order to restore funding for planetary exploration.  Few expect the FY2013 budget to be finalized before the November elections meaning that NASA and other agencies will have to operate on a Continuing Resolution (CR) for some number of months.   CRs usually fund programs at their previous year's level, so in this particular case, that could be good news for the planetary science community -- if only for a few months.

Green pointed out at Thursday's meeting that even if Congress added money for planetary science in FY2013, that does not mean a new program could be initiated because there is no guarantee increased funding would be provided in future years.   He also noted that if Congress increases funding for planetary science, it might direct NASA on how to spend it rather than giving the agency flexibility to make those decisions. 

 


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