Tough choices ahead for NASA's planetary program
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: March 18, 2014
There is little question some long-lived NASA planetary exploration missions will be at risk of cutbacks or cancellation later this year, but the agency's top planetary science official this week cautioned the science community not to presume which projects, if any, will see funding cuts.
But the longevity of many of the missions will force difficult decisions for a review committee this spring tasked with deciding which projects NASA should keep funding.
Mission managers are finishing proposals to be submitted to NASA in April for consideration in a senior review, a process every two years in which an independent panel of respected scientists rank the value of continuing funding for each project.
The senior review board's recommendations will be announced in June, according to NASA. All of NASA's science divisions use a similar review to decide which missions most deserve continued funding.
Scarce funding, always a concern for NASA, is aggravated in this year's senior review cycle by the inclusion of the Curiosity Mars rover, which will complete its primary two-year mission this summer and must ask for approval for extended operations.
The Cassini mission in orbit around Saturn is also seeking money to keep flying. Running low on propellant, the spacecraft is on a trajectory to crash into Saturn in September 2017.
NASA is also trying to balance extending old missions going while developing new projects, such as another Mars rover scheduled for launch in 2020 and a robotic mission to Europa a few years later.
Cassini and Curiosity each cost about $60 million per year to operate, but officials in charge of both missions say they are looking at ways to reduce costs.
Jim Erickson, Curiosity's project manager, said in an interview last fall that decreasing the mission's operating costs would require taking some creative steps.
"Once we got down to a planned steady state (after landing in August 2012), we haven't reduced the costs at all," Erickson said. "That's sort of the next step and takes some planning to do."
Erickson did not disclose specific cost reductions planned for Curiosity's extended mission, citing the competitive nature of the senior review.
Cassini's mission extension proposal includes an option for full funding by NASA and an alternate concept with 85 percent of the cost, according to a presentation in January by Cassini project science Linda Spilker.
The other projects under consideration in the senior review have smaller annual operating budgets.
Unless Congress boosts NASA's planetary science budget, or some missions are willing to live with severe cutbacks in funding and capability, there is a risk some spacecraft will be turned off.
Language in the Obama administration's fiscal year 2015 budget request sparked worries the Opportunity Mars rover and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter were destined for cancellation. Both missions receive no money in the White House's main budget request, but the projects are listed in an addendum dubbed the "Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative," a separate $56 billion program not expected to gain traction in Congress.
But planetary science has strong supporters on Capitol Hill, including Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who sits on the House Appropriations Committee and represents the district containing NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages most of the missions up for review this year.
"Congress has to make a decision," Green said. "Let's speculate and say Congress says no to the [Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative] fund, what are we going to do? ... We go through a senior review. We'll order the missions, we'll make programmatic decisions, and we'll fund them. If LRO is on top or Opportunity is on top, they will be funded."
One scientist who questioned Green took umbrage with Opportunity and LRO's placement in the budget request's bonus fund and not the main document. "What mission would you like for me to put there?" Green asked. "Something other," the scientist replied.
Seven missions are on the planetary science division's senior review docket this year:
NASA's other planetary missions, such as New Horizons, Juno and Dawn, are still in their primary mission phases. And the MESSENGER spacecraft at Mercury was already granted an extension to March 2015, when engineers expect it to run out of propellant and impact Mercury.
"I would love for the community not to worry about where the money is, and how they're going to get it, because they need to write a proposal to get it," Green said. "They need to burn a hole in steel and write the best darn extended mission proposal they can such that our peer review process will allow us then to fund them."
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