Are the Days of NASA's Science Flagship Missions Over?

Are the Days of NASA's Science Flagship Missions Over?

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden had a tough message for the space science community today – forget about flagship missions, they’re not affordable these days.  At the very same time on Capitol Hill, however, the chairman of one of NASA’s key committees was expressing enthusiasm about a mission to Europa – unquestionably a flagship mission.  The disconnect could not be more stark.

Flagship missions are NASA’s most expensive (over $1 billion) and risky space science missions, but offer exceptional scientific payoff.

Bolden stopped by the NASA Advisory Council’s (NAC’s) Science Committee this morning during a break in a meeting of his Strategic Management Council, composed of NASA leaders at Headquarters and its 10 centers around the country.  By happenstance, his arrival interrupted a briefing on “lessons learned” from one of NASA’s most recent flagship missions – the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) with its Curiosity rover.  Though Curiosity is a tremendous technological, scientific and public relations success, it was two years late and significantly over budget.

Bolden’s message to the NAC Science Committee was unambiguous:  “We have to stop thinking about … flagship missions. …  The budget doesn’t support that.”  Bolden went on to explain that he and NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan have talked about “the importance of cadence,” flying “more, less expensive types of missions.”   Noting that the science community has many interest groups and his job is “to find a way to be able to satisfy” them all, he said “increasing the cadence, letting them fly more, although smaller” missions is “an answer” though “it may not be the answer.”  Trying to win approval for flagship missions would mean “eternal battles” with the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), he said.

A few blocks away, by contrast, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee was holding a hearing on astrobiology — the search for life elsewhere in the solar system and the universe.  One of the witnesses, Steve Dick, responded to a question about what the goals should be for astrobiology by saying that he wants a voyage to Europa, a moon of Jupiter.  Committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) said “I would too.”

Dick is the Baruch S. Blumberg chair of astrobiology at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress.

Scientists believe Europa has a liquid ocean under its icy crust.  Where there’s water, there may be life.   A mission to Europa was the second priority for large missions in the most recent National Research Council Decadal Survey on planetary science.  Its $4.7 billion pricetag was one reason it was not at the top of the list.  The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has since developed a scaled down mission concept called Europa Clipper that it says will cost $2.1 billion instead.   Even then, it definitely would count as a flagship mission.

NASA has not requested funding for Europa Clipper, but Congress appropriated $75 million in FY2013 for concept studies based largely on support from Smith’s fellow Texan John Culberson and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) who serve on the subcommittee that approves NASA’s appropriations.   Today, Smith said that “I think Europa is already on the list, but we’ll have to expedite that.”

Republicans and Democrats alike were full of nothing but praise for NASA’s astrobiology program at today’s hearing.  One member, Steve Palazzo (R-MS), who chairs the Space Subcommittee, did bring up the fiscal constraints that define the federal budget debate today and asked the witnesses how to choose among priorities, but Dick and his fellow witnesses – NASA’s Mary Voytek and MIT’s Sara Seager – demurred.

Dick and Voytek also cited Enceladus, a moon of Saturn that ejects plumes of water vapor, as a preferred destination to further astrobiology studies.  That, too, would be a flagship mission.

Clearly, Congress has a strong interest in getting the scientific knowledge that comes from flagship missions.  Whether it will provide NASA with the funds to pursue them on a year by year basis over many, many years is another question.  The only way to get a new program into the budget for the long term is through the President’s budget request, which comes through OMB.  As Bolden said, that is a challenge.

Correction:  An earlier version of this story mistakenly stated the first name of the Congressman from California.  He is Adam Schiff, not Steven Schiff. 

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