Planetary Scientists Continue to Pin Hopes on Congress

Planetary Scientists Continue to Pin Hopes on Congress

Planetary scientists participating in the first meeting of the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science (CAPS) today made clear that they are relying on Congress to restore cuts to planetary exploration, and the Mars program in particular. 

The Obama Administration requested a 20 percent cut to NASA’s robotic planetary exploration program for FY2013.  Consequently, NASA had to withdraw from planned cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA) on two Mars missions in 2016 and 2018 that were the beginning of a series of large, expensive “flagship” missions that would ultimately return samples of Mars to Earth for analysis.  Mars sample return was the top priority for large missions in the NRC’s 2011 Decadal Survey for planetary science, but as NASA officials at the CAPS meeting today repeatedly stated, the budget for planetary exploration is substantially less than they predicted when the Decadal Survey was underway.

Decadal Surveys are highly respected documents that represent a consensus of the relevant science community as to what are the top scientific questions to be answered in that scientific discipline and what missions should be executed to answer them.  NASA and Congress pay close attention to these studies, but significant budget perturbations or changes in the estimated costs or schedules of the recommended missions can wreak havoc with fulfilling them.

During an exchange with representatives of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) today, CAPS members stressed the difficulty of planning missions when the White House suddenly changes its budget projections.   Some of the CAPS members also sought explanations for why the planetary science program, and Mars in particular, were singled out for cuts.

OMB’s Joydip “JD” Kundu, who handles NASA’s space science account, reiterated what he and other OMB officials have said in the past.   In essence, they concluded that the federal budget outlook for the next several years precluded the United States from committing to a series of expensive missions to Mars over many years.  In addition, “some projects needed increases” and OMB did not want to make across-the-board cuts to other programs to compensate.   He did not mention the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) by name in that context, but many in the planetary science community believe that JWST cost overruns are the fundamental reason for the cuts to planetary science.   NASA and White House officials have been careful not to publicly make that connection, however.

In any case, Kundu explained that OMB decided to avoid making commitments the United States could not keep and to protect other Decadal Survey priorities such as funding for research and analysis (R&A) and seeing that other planetary science programs such as the next Discovery selection and the OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sample return mission remain on track.  Furthermore, the White House is allowing NASA to plan for a less expensive mission to Mars in 2018 or 2020 and to develop closer coordination between NASA’s robotic and human Mars exploration plans.  Even without the ExoMars cooperation, Kundu said, NASA’s Mars program is very healthy with several probes already in orbit or on the surface, another enroute, another scheduled for launch next year, and planning underway for a less costly mission in 2018 or 2020.  Although NASA and ESA signed an agreement in 2009 that signaled an intent to merge their Mars exploration programs, the White House insists that no firm commitments were made, and that it was better to step away from that program now than start down a path that was unsustainable.

CAPS member Laurie Leshin, Dean of the School of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a former NASA official, asked why other federal science agencies received increases in their FY2013 budget requests, but NASA did not.  OSTP’s Tammy Dickinson stressed that the cut was “not a penalty to planetary or to NASA,” but that the Obama Administration supports the America COMPETES Act, which singles out the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science for budget increases because of their importance to innovation and American competitiveness.  Perhaps the planetary science community could do a better job of explaining the relevance of its work to other national priorities, she added.  Leshin replied that NASA provides the inspiration to get students into science in the first place and Dickinson agreed.

In response to the complaints about budget instability, Kundu responded that cost overruns lead to that result.   Projects must execute on schedule and on cost or other programs will pay the price, he stressed.  Although JWST is criticized for its cost overruns today, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL, or Curiosity) now on its way to Mars also suffered substantial overruns and a two-year launch delay.    Cristina Chaplain of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) told CAPS earlier in the day that GAO sees signs of progress in how NASA manages its programs, but will have to monitor NASA’s activities over time to see if the improvement is real.   Kundu added that although Chaplain talked about hopeful signs, the “truth is that as long as we have that issue [of cost overruns] we will have instability in planning.”

Ed Feddeman and Richard Obermann of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee staff also briefed CAPS.  Feddeman is the Republican staff director of the Space and Aeronautics subcommittee, while Obermann is the Democratic Chief of Staff for the full committee.   Both were pessimistic about the chances for Congress to reach resolution on FY2013 budgets before the end of the fiscal year on September 30, and sequestration is the “largest cloud on the horizon,” Feddeman said.   If Congress does not change existing law, sequestration will go into effect on January 1, 2013 with 7-8 percent across-the-board cuts to federal agencies including NASA.  “I can’t pretty it up,” Feddeman grimly stated. 

Obermann said that it is a challenging time for planetary science even though it has broad support in Congress.  He said Congress still had not received a good rationale from NASA as to why it ended cooperation with ESA on ExoMars instead of restructuring the program as is typically done when budgets change for the worse.  The cost to complete an instrument intended for the 2018 mission, the Mars Organic Molecular Analyzer (MOMA), was modest, Obermann said, adding that “we’re puzzled” as to why the entire program was scrapped.

The House passed the FY2013 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill that funds NASA two weeks ago and the Senate Appropriations Committee has reported out its version.  Both would restore some of the funds for Mars exploration.   Appropriations bills provide funding for only one year, however, and what restrictions might accompany the funding will not be decided until final action on the bill.  The House version, for example, says that the money can be spent on Mars only if the NRC certifies that the new, less costly mission being planned for 2018 or 2020 conforms to the Decadal Survey’s top priority of Mars sample return.  Otherwise the money is to be spent on the Decadal Survey’s second priority for large missions, a spacecraft to study Jupiter’s moon Europa.

CAPS is organized under the auspices of the NRC’s Space Studies Board (SSB).  It replaces and combines two previous SSB committees:  the Committee on Planetary and Lunar Exploration (COMPLEX) and the Committee on the Origins and Evolution of Life (COEL).  The meeting continues Thursday and Friday.

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