Fox Urges Science Community to Stick Together Amid Budget Pressures

Fox Urges Science Community to Stick Together Amid Budget Pressures

The head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate urged her science community colleagues to stick together as pressures mount on the science budget. Despite a record level of funding in the FY2024 budget request, inflation, lingering supply chain issues, and the monetary demands of high priority flagship missions mean some projects will be delayed. Rather than focusing on what is not in the request, however, she wants the community to rally around what is there.

Nicola Fox, NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. Credit: NASA

Nicky Fox became SMD’s Associate Administrator just four weeks ago, but previously was SMD’s Heliophysics Division Director so is quite familiar with NASA and its science community. Today she led a virtual Town Hall meeting where she and other top SMD officials briefed the community on the budget request.

The good news is that NASA is asking for $8.3 billion for science, the highest level in history, part of an overall $27.2 billion request for the agency — an increase of 7.1 percent above FY2023.

The not so good news is that a 7.1 percent increase merely keeps pace with inflation.

NASA’s science programs encompass astrophysics, biological and physical sciences in space, earth science, heliophysics (solar and space physics), and planetary science.

Although there are budget challenges in all those areas, they are most keenly felt in planetary science right now. The FY2024 request is $3.383 billion, a $183 million increase over FY2023. However, that budget has to pay for two flagship missions — Europa Clipper and Mars Sample Return — on top of a wide range of small, medium and large missions to study the solar system.

Among them is the NEO Surveyor mission to find and track asteroids 140 meters or more in diameter in response to congressional direction in the 2005 NASA authorization act. NASA’s proposal to drastically cut that program last year met with strong congressional opposition and although the launch date has been delayed two years to 2028, it is fully funded in this year’s request to meet that new date.

But other programs are feeling the pinch. Last fall, the VERITAS Venus orbiter was delayed because its money was needed to cover an overrun in a completely unrelated program, Psyche. Although Planetary Science Division Director Lori Glaze said at the time it was a three-year delay, from 2028 to 2031, this year’s budget request all but cancels it.

Glaze said today that she has asked the VERITAS team to develop a budget plan that begins next year and keeps the 2031 launch date. VERITAS is a Discovery mission, a series of medium-class missions selected on a more-or-less regular cadence. Glaze cautioned that getting VERITAS ready for 2031 “likely” would mean skipping the next Discovery cycle.

A bigger concern is the flagship missions. Europa Clipper, whose cost grew to $5 billion, is on track for launch next year, but Mars Sample Return is still in the formulation stage.

Illustration of Europa Clipper flying over Jupiter’s moon Europa with Jupiter in the background. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

A joint project with the European Space Agency, MSR will bring back to Earth the samples now being collected by the Perseverance rover. How much it will cost is still unclear. NASA’s FY2024 budget request is $949 million with projections for future years of $700 million in FY2025, $600 million in FY2026, $612 million in FY2027 and $628 million in FY2028, but the request warns that those figures are expected to grow and choices will have to be made to reduce funding for other science projects or descope MSR.

Jeff Gramling, MSR Program Director, said they are working towards launch in 2028, but the program will not go through its confirmation review until next year. That is the point at which NASA commits to cost and schedule. An Independent Review Board made recommendations in 2020 and a second IRB will be convened before the confirmation review, but it’s clear MSR will consume a large part of the science budget — and not just planetary science.

Programs in other disciplines are being cut to pay for MSR already. NASA plans to “pause” the Geospace Dynamics Constellation heliophysics mission and Fox indicated today that the response to the recently completed Decadal Survey for Astronomy and Astrophysics also will be delayed in order to offset increased costs for MSR.

Slide presented by Nicky Fox at March 23, 2023 virtual Town Hall meeting.

Fox is a heliophysicist herself. GDC was one of the programs under her purview when she was Heliophysics Division Director. She said pausing GDC  “was the hardest decision that I had to make.”

As for the impact on the planetary science budget itself, Glaze stressed that none of the money taken from VERITAS went to MSR, but was reallocated to “other activities in the portfolio.” NASA’s FY2023 budget request included $810.6 million for VERITAS for FY2023-2027. Now it is just $1.5 million per year for FY2024-2028.

NASA later told by email that money in FY2023 and beyond was redirected to Psyche, NEO Surveyor, and “the orderly stand down” of VERITAS.

“The Planetary Science Divison’s FY23 funds were redirected to support an unplanned additional year of Pysche’s development — to complete work and to prepare for the launch in October 2023. A large sum was also redirected  into the Planetary Defense NEO Surveyor mission beyond FY23. FY23 funding was also provided for the orderly stand down of the VERITAS mission.”NASA

The bottom line is that despite what might appear to be a robust budget request, it still is not enough to fund everything already in the pipeline. That could set up tensions between programs and between disciplines.

Fox wants to avoid that, reminding her colleagues that “we are stronger” together.

“It’s really easy to focus on the things that we don’t have in the budget, but I do think we need to step back and look at all the amazing things we do have in the budget. We have over $8 billion in the SMD portfolio. Everybody wants to do everything. We are in a constrained budget and it just means that we cannot do everything that everybody wants to do. …

Remember that we are stronger when we work together as a community. … I hope all the communities in the SMD family will stand together and just really celebrate the amazing stuff that we have in the SMD portfolio.”


This article has been updated.

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