No Prohibition Against Science Flagship Missions OMB Tells NRC

No Prohibition Against Science Flagship Missions OMB Tells NRC

The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) does not have a prohibition against NASA beginning new science flagship missions according to two OMB officials who spoke to the National Research Council (NRC) yesterday.

Paul Shawcross, Branch Chief for Science and Space, and Joydip (JD) Kundu, who handles NASA’s science budget, told a joint meeting of the NRC’s Space Studies Board and Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board, that OMB had not make any blanket statement about future flagship missions.   NASA science officials had indicated that OMB would not approve new flagship missions until NASA completes two existing flagships — the Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity) now on its way to Mars and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) scheduled for launch in 2018 — that encountered significant overruns and schedule delays.

Kundu said that although the track record on Curiosity and JWST was “not great,” the FY2013 budget request was the result of ensuring that all the pieces of the NASA budget fit together in a flat budget scenario.   Shawcross added that the cost overruns did not help the situation because there is consequently less money available, “but we’re not against flagships.”

Historically, the term “flagship” has been applied to science missions that cost more than $1 billion, although there was discussion at yesterday’s meeting that the defining characteristics of a flagship mission are complexity and innovation, not cost.   Kundu said OMB does not draw a line at $1 billion, but looks at each mission individually.

The planetary science community is extremely distressed that the FY2013 budget request includes a 20 percent cut to planetary exploration.  NASA had to withdraw from two flagship Mars missions planned with the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2016 and 2018.   When asked whether that action hurts prospects for future international cooperation, Shawcross and Kundu pointed out that just about all of NASA’s science missions involve international cooperation.   If a different mission had been canceled, Kundu said, it also probably would have meant reneging on an international agreement.  He also stressed that the United States had not made a formal commitment to the 2016 and 2018 Mars missions.

Those two missions were part of a plan for a series of Mars probes over many years that ultimately would have resulted in returning a sample of Mars to Earth.  It would have been a “looming problem,”  Shawcross said, and the decision not to proceed was “not a bias against Mars.”   Tammy Dickinson of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) agreed, and said the decision “wasn’t made based on science, but on budget.”

Shawcross emphasized that the President’s overall FY2013 budget request was developed to avoid sequestration, which will go into effect on January 1, 2013 unless Congress finds $1 trillion in savings or changes the law.  He anticipates that Congress will not complete action on the FY2013 appropriations bills before the election, and a “flurry” of activity will result between then and January 1.   He said he could not predict how it will turn out.  If sequestration does occur, he said, it would mean a 7.8 percent cut to the part of the budget that includes NASA.

He also noted that the $17.7 billion request for NASA is well short of the $20 billion that was authorized for FY2013 in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.  That “creates trouble” when the administration is trying to follow the authorization act, he said, adding that the out-year projections in the budget are notional, but he would be “really surprised” if NASA’s budget increases in the next several years.



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