NASA's Jim Green Reassures Planetary Science Community on R&A Funding on Christmas Eve

NASA's Jim Green Reassures Planetary Science Community on R&A Funding on Christmas Eve

The Planetary Exploration Newsletter (PEN) published a Special Edition this Christmas Eve with a message from NASA Planetary Science Division (PSD) Director Jim Green responding to “community concerns.”

Judging from the newsletter, the planetary science community is worried that the recent decision to fund another Mars rover in 2020 is impacting the amount of money available for research and analysis (R&A) in planetary science overall. 

The planetary science community was stunned earlier this year when the President’s FY2013 budget request reduced funding for NASA’s planetary science program by 21 percent, requiring NASA to curtail planned cooperation with Europe on Mars missions scheduled for launch in 2016 and 2018 — the ExoMars program.  Those are flight projects, rather than funding that goes to R&A, which pays for concept studies of new missions and data analysis of ongoing and completed programs.  The funding goes to university professors and their graduate students, NASA field centers, non-profits, for-profit corporations, and other government laboratories. 

Green’s message, transmitted through PEN, is that the FY2013 budget request includes $228 million for R&A, “more than 19% of the entire Planetary Science budget (a historic high percentage).”  Noting that NASA is operating under a Continuing Resolution for FY2013 at the moment, Green says that means PSD program officers are getting partial funding at regular intervals, but do not have all the funds necessary to meet current R&A commitments.  He then lists the core principles on how R&A is being managed, which includes choosing R&A awards in three categories:  selected, non-selected, and “selectable.”   He goes on to say that recent announcements in Planetary Astronomy and Planetary Atmospheres R&A did not identify the proposals in the selectable category that would be funded as money becomes available later in the year.  “Contrary to reports in the science community, the recent announcement of the Mars 2020 rover has nothing to do with the current R&A selection rates nor has it impacted the current or projected amounts to be spent in the R&A program,” he says.

Athough the proposed budget cut in the FY2013 budget request would have curtailed U.S. robotic Mars missions after next year’s launch of MAVEN, NASA has, in fact, subsequently selected another Mars mission, InSight, for launch in 2016, and another rover mission similar to Curiosity for launch in 2020.  Where the money will come from to pay for the 2020 mission is not clear.  Details are expected when the FY2014 budget request is sent to Congress, scheduled for February 2013.   In the meantime, it appears that the planetary science community is worried that funding for that mission will come at the expense of ongoing R&A and Green’s missive is meant to assuage those concerns.

The timing of the announcement is odd since most people on Christmas Eve are busy tracking Santa Claus rather than federal budgets.  Perhaps it proves that Washington never sleeps and/or is meant to deflect any criticism that might emerge at the American Astronomical Society’s annual meeting two weeks from now.

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