Funding for Europa Mission Ephemeral in NASA Budget

Funding for Europa Mission Ephemeral in NASA Budget

NASA requested $15 million in FY2015 for a robotic mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, but as the detailed budget documents released late yesterday illustrate, that is a one-year request only.   The 5-year budget plan included in the detailed document includes no funding beyond FY2015.

NASA’s 713-page detailed FY2015 budget request was posted on NASA’s website yesterday.  An overview was released last week and the only new flight project initiative announced was $15 million for a mission to Europa, whose icy crust is thought to cover a liquid ocean with the tantalizing implication that microbial life might exist there.

A mission to Europa was the second priority for a large mission in the National Research Council’s 2011 Decadal Survey for planetary science, losing out to a campaign of Mars missions leading to a Mars sample return in part because of its $4.7 billion pricetag.

Since then, scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have been working to reduce the cost (and consequently the scientific return) of the mission.  The “Europa Clipper” concept would cost about $2 billion.  Though less than half the original estimate, it is still in the “flagship” range of NASA science missions – the most expensive category – and the Obama Administration has not been willing to commit to a mission of that magnitude.

Some influential members of Congress, however, are quite partial to a Europa mission and Congress added money for it in the FY2013 and FY2014 budgets.  Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) and Adam Schiff (D-CA) who serve on the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) Subcommittee that funds NASA, and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who chairs the House committee that authorizes NASA activities, are among the supporters of a Europa mission.

In FY2013, Congress added $75 million, or about $69 million after reductions for the sequester and two rescissions required by the law.  For FY2014, Congress added $80 million.

As NASA officials point out, however, they cannot build a mission based on promises or expectations that Congress will add money year after year after year. What is needed is approval for a “new start” program that is factored into NASA’s long range budget plans, something that needs Administration acquiescence.

When NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden released an overview of the budget request for FY2015 last week, it initially appeared that Europa had achieved the “new start” threshold when he said the request included $15 million for a Europa mission.  As details released yesterday prove, however, that is only for one year, FY2015.  It is not funding for a new program expected to last many years until launch in the 2020s.  The projected future budget, or “runout,” for FY2016 and beyond is zero.

Speaking at the American Astronautical Society’s Goddard Memorial Symposium on Wednesday (March 5), Bolden said the agency is “committed” to launching a mission to Europa in the decade of the 2020s, but he is targeting the cost at about $1 billion.  That is half of the Europa Clipper concept.  He acknowledged that it will be difficult to design a mission for that cost.  Later at the AAS conference, NASA Science Mission Directorate (SMD) chief John Grunsfeld indicated that NASA will not be able to spend all the $80 million provided in the FY2014 budget before the end of FY2014 because the budget was finalized so late and some of that will be carried over into FY2015.   If Congress approves the $15 million requested for FY2015, however, that still is not enough to move the project forward, he said, and the focus remains on studies.   He plans to release a Request for Information (RFI) soon to solicit input on what could be accomplished with a $1 billion-class mission. That would fit within SMD’s “New Frontiers” category of competed missions that are intended to be initiated every three years, but not enough for a flagship mission.

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