Glaze Spells Out Priorities if Budget Cuts Materialize

Glaze Spells Out Priorities if Budget Cuts Materialize

Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, told an advisory committee today how she will prioritize activities if budget cuts stemming from the recent debt limit deal materialize. She also disputed that the Mars Sample Return program needs an additional $250 million above the FY2024 request, insisting the agency is waiting for the results of an independent review before making any new cost estimates. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told Congress MSR needed the extra funding in April.

At a meeting of the Planetary Science Advisory Committee, Glaze acknowledged that the debt limit deal negotiated by President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy calls for FY2024 funding to be capped at the FY2023 level. If implemented for her division, that would mean a cut of $183 million, from the $3.383 billion requested back to the $3.200 billion appropriated for FY2023.

The House Appropriations Committee actually decided to hold non-defense spending to lower numbers, those for FY2022. The Senate Appropriations Committee will reveal their spending targets tomorrow, but it remains unclear as to how any cuts will affect specific agencies like NASA.

Added to the effects of inflation and supply chain disruptions, the budget situation presages a period of “belt tightening” across the government, Glaze said.

NASA’s science priorities are guided by Decadal Surveys produced every 10 years — a decade — for each of NASA’s science disciplines by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. In recent years, the Decadals have been required to include “decision rules” to advise the agency on what to do if there is less (or more) money than anticipated when the report was written.

Glaze indicated she’s following the decision rules in the most recent planetary science Decadal Survey, Origins, Worlds and Life.

“Decision rules” from the 2022 planetary science Decadal Survey “Origins, Worlds, and Life.” Screengrab  from April 19, 2022 briefing by co-chair Phil Christensen, Arizona State University (pictured lower right).

In terms of setting priorities under these circumstances, the “biggest lever we have” is delaying the start of new missions, Glaze explained. That includes flagship missions, the most expensive category that are managed at the agency level, as well as the comparatively less expensive New Frontiers, Discovery and SIMPLEx (Small, Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration) missions chosen through competitive Announcements of Opportunities (AOs) and managed by scientists who serve as Principal Investigators (PIs).

Her top priority is protecting the Research and Analysis (R&A) budget, which is completely in tune with the Decadal committee’s list as the last place to cut. After that, her priority list is  —

  • Protect missions in development that have passed through confirmation review (Key Decision Point-C or KDP-C) with an agency commitment to cost and schedule, especially those that are closest to launch “because they cost us way less money when they’re in space than when they’re on the ground”;
  • Minimize disruptions to international partnerships, including MMX with Japan and Mars Sample Return, Rosalind Franklin (formerly ExoMars) and EnVision with ESA; and
  • Balance support for operating missions versus missions in development.

Decisions to wait until FY2025 to begin formulation studies for the Decadal-recommended Uranus Orbiter/Probe flagship mission and to postpone AOs that were expected to be released this year already have been made or are likely.

Source: Presentation by Lori Glaze, Director, NASA Planetary Science Division at the Planetary Science Advisory Committee, June 21, 2023.

The Mars Sample Return mission to bring samples of Mars back to Earth was the top priority of the 2012 Decadal Survey. The 2022 Decadal reiterated its importance, saying it should be done “as soon as practically possible with no increase or decrease in its current scope.” The samples are being collected right now by the Perseverance rover. The MSR program, a joint NASA-ESA endeavor, will collect them and bring them back.

It’s a very expensive undertaking, however, and the Decadal committee worried the cost would grow beyond the then-estimated $5.3 billion. They didn’t want it to overwhelm everything else in planetary science, so recommended that it not exceed “~35 percent of the Planetary Science Division budget in any given year.”

Glaze said she has taken that advice to heart. “I thought that was a good guideline from the Decadal. I think it’s a reasonable number that allows us to try and achieve Mars Sample Return without overtaking the rest of the planetary budget.”

MSR’s cost does continue to grow. The request for FY2024 alone is $949.3 million. Members of the advisory committee asked a lot questions including about reports that it needs an additional $250 million already.

Administrator Nelson told the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee on April 18 that he had just visited the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and “they’re saying they want another $250 million in this year. Meaning in this year, existing 2023, and 2024.”

Today, however, Jeff Gramling, MSR program director at NASA headquarters, said Nelson was talking only about 2024 and he and Glaze emphasized that’s not an official figure.

That’s “not a NASA number,” Glaze insisted, saying the agency is waiting for the results of a second Independent Review Board, which is just getting down to work, before making any new cost estimates. “There may be various individuals that are throwing numbers out there, but until we’ve done the review we’re not going to stand behind a number.”

She also pushed back on the perception that MSR is the primary reason the planetary science budget is under stress. Inflation, COVID-related supply chain disruptions, and extra costs for the Europa Clipper and Psyche missions all have an impact and are unrelated to MSR.  Not to mention the potential budget cuts.

Glaze’s message was that there’s a lot of uncertainty right now and she cannot predict what the budget will turn out to be or what near-term choices may lie ahead, but she remains optimistic. The budget was strained when the 2012 Decadal Survey was released, too, but the situation improved as the decade progressed and over the past 5 years, since 2018, a robust program has emerged. “My priority is to protect what we have.”

Source: Presentation by Lori Glaze, Director, NASA Planetary Science Division at the Planetary Science Advisory Committee, June 21, 2023.

Note:  The NASA Administrator’s office did not respond by press time to a query requesting clarification of his remarks to the Senate Appropriations subcommittee.

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