Bolden Clarifies NASA's Position on Flagship Missions

Bolden Clarifies NASA's Position on Flagship Missions

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden issued a statement clarifying NASA’s position on flagship missions for use by senior agency officials attending the American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference in San Francisco this week.

As reported by, at a December 4 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s Science Committee (NAC/Science), Bolden told the space and earth science communities that they should “stop thinking about … flagship missions” because they are unaffordable in the current budget environment.  Other news outlets including the Huntsville Times picked up on the story.

On December 10, editor Keith Cowing published a statement that had been written by Bolden that clarifies the agency’s position, which is quite different from what Bolden expressed at the NAC/Science meeting.  (H/T to Keith for publicizing its existence.)

In response to a subsequent request from for a copy of the statement and other information, NASA Associate Administrator for Communications David Weaver explained that the statement was written for agency leaders to use at AGU.  “This was prepared for use by senior leaders attending the AGU conference this week and distributed to them — and other agency leaders.” 

AGU is one of the major annual scientific conferences where results from NASA science missions, especially planetary science missions, are announced.  All four divisions of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate — astrophysics, heliophysics, earth science and planetary science — are feeling the budgetary strain, but the planetary science community has been hit particularly hard and is increasingly concerned about when they will be allowed to initiate a new flagship mission.  Flagship missions are the most expensive (over $1 billion) and risky, but offer the greatest scientific reward.  

Within planetary science, NASA is currently building the Mars2020 rover, which, based on its cost, is a flagship mission.  However, it is being built largely using heritage technology and leftover parts from the Mars Curiosity rover.  The planetary science community wants a new ground-breaking project such as a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, which has a liquid ocean under an icy shell.  Many also want a mission to the outer planets – beyond the asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter — since NASA’s current planetary science missions in that region of the solar system will complete their missions by 2017.  A Europa mission has the support of key members of Congress and Congress added $75 million to NASA’s FY2013 budget for concept studies.  That is quite different, however, from coming up with more than $1 billion over the next several years to actually proceed with a mission in addition to everything else NASA is currently being asked to do.

Bolden’s remarks to NAC/Science conveyed that such a mission is not in NASA’s foreseeable future — for planetary science or any of the other science disciplines.  At that time, Bolden stressed the importance of having a reliable cadence of smaller missions that could be spread over a broader set of space and earth science objectives.

The text of Bolden’s clarifying statement as provided by Weaver today is as follows:

Statement of Administrator Charles Bolden Re: NASA’s Commitment to Flagship Missions

“NASA remains committed to planning, launching and operating flagship missions that meet the challenging objectives of our science, technology and aeronautics communities as identified through decadal surveys, advisory groups, the Administration and Congress.   We are dedicated to pursuing the most cost-effective ways to accomplish this goal in order to provide balance with an increased cadence of missions that vary in size, destination and complexity.”

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