Fox Again Urges NASA Science Community to Stick Together

Fox Again Urges NASA Science Community to Stick Together

Nicky Fox, the head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, again urged the NASA science community to stick together in these tough budget times and not split into factions fighting each other. After years of steadily increasing budgets and projections maintaining that growth rate, SMD is suddenly facing a future with about $1 billion less each year. While it still will have $7.5 billion or more, tough choices will have to be made about projects still in the planning stages like Mars Sample Return.

Fox and the directors of each of SMD’s divisions — astrophysics, biological and physical sciences, earth science, heliophysics, and planetary science — briefed the science community at a virtual Town Hall meeting today and promised more meetings to answer questions.

In addition to stressing the need for the NASA science community to present a united front, Fox also focused on all that NASA is doing instead of only on what it cannot do because of budget limitations. NASA has “just over 140 missions all across the solar system” operating or in development right now, she said.

Credit: Nicky Fox, Science Mission Directorate Town Hall, March 13, 2024

Although FY2025 is a challenging budget environment, “we are grateful for every penny of that budget and we will do great things with every single penny of that budget.”

She also pointed out that the President’s request is just the first step in the annual budget process.

What happens next is up to Congress.

That’s why it’s important for scientists to talk about their science “in the big picture context, how important it is to NASA science and how important NASA science is to the nation. Every single piece of science that we do has benefits to everyone here on Earth and it improves our daily lives. So when you’re talking about science, talk about it in a very unified way please and in the collaborative spirit that makes up team NASA science.”

Despite the optimism, on Friday Congress passed the final FY2024 appropriation for NASA, with $7.334 billion for SMD compared to the $8.261 billion requested. Last year’s request projected that SMD would get $8.426 billion in FY2025, but the President’s request is $7.566 billion instead. That’s a big sea change for programs that take years to plan and execute.

Among the takeaways from today’s briefing was good news that a Venus probe, VERITAS, that was essentially zeroed out last year is now restored. However, another Venus probe, DAVINCI, that was supposed to launch in 2029, will be delayed. NASA also is working with the European Space Agency on a third Venus probe, EnVision. It turns out that now all three of them will be launched in the 2031-2032 time frame. Each will study different aspects of Venus.

Credit: Lori Glaze, Science Mission Directorate Town Hall, March 13, 2024

VERITAS is part of the planetary science budget, which has suffered the deepest cuts. The request for FY2025 is $2.7 billion, compared to the $3.2 billion projected last year. It includes the Mars Sample Return mission. An internal NASA team is due to make recommendations to NASA leadership later this month on how to proceed with MSR following last year’s Independent Review Board report that the project’s entire architecture needs to be reconsidered and it will cost much more than anticipated.

The FY2025 request does not include an amount for MSR. The budget tables show “TBD.” Fox and Planetary Science Division Director Lori Glaze say that however much money is allocated for MSR after the review will have to be absorbed within the $2.7 billion total. The request does include $218 million for “Other Missions and Data Analysis” in the Outer Planets and Ocean Worlds line item. When asked today how that money will be spent, Glaze demurred saying that no decision will be made until the MSR situation is settled.

Another Mars mission affected by the budget situation is MAVEN, which has been orbiting Mars since 2014 studying its atmosphere and serving as a communications relay for spacecraft on the surface. The request shows funding ending in FY2027. Asked why, Glaze said it was purely a budget matter, noting that MAVEN is funded in FY2025 and FY2026. She expressed optimism money might become available in the next budget cycle if the spacecraft remains healthy and a “Senior Review” determines the science it’s doing is worth the investment.

In astrophysics, funding would sharply decline for another older mission, the Chandra X-ray space telescope. Chandra and the Hubble Space Telescope, which studies the universe primarily in the visible wavelengths, both have been operating for a long time and Astrophysics Division Director Mark Clampin said today a “mini” Senior Review will be held for them. Hubble is very popular with the public and the request is pretty much level though FY2028. Chandra is less well known, but is the only U.S. space telescope in the X-ray part of the spectrum. Its funding would drop immediately.

Credit: Mark Clampin, Science Mission Directorate Town Hall, March 13, 2024.

In heliophysics, the request calls for cancelling the Geospace Dynamics Constellation. The FY2024 budget proposed “pausing” the mission because of budget constraints, but NASA now has decided to cancel it even though, as Heliophysics Division Director Joe Westlake acknowledged, the FY2024 appropriations bill directs NASA to submit a plan to launch it by the end of the decade.

Credit: Joe Westlake, Science Mission Directorate Town Hall, March 13, 2024.

Overall, every SMD division is facing challenges especially when inflation is taken into account, but, as Fox said, they still will be able to do great science with the money they have. Among the science launches coming up this year are the NASA-ISRO SAR (NISAR) earth science mission; Europa Clipper, which will study Jupiter’s icy moon Europa; and possibly additional launches in the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.

Credit: Nicky Fox, Science Mission Directorate Town Hall, March 13, 2024.


Credit: Nicky Fox, Science Mission Directorate Town Hall, March 13, 2024.

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