UPDATE: Future of NASA Planetary Flagship Missions in Doubt

UPDATE: Future of NASA Planetary Flagship Missions in Doubt

UPDATE: Jim Green’s slides used in conjunction with the PSS subcommittee meeting are available at this website. Look under “Recent NASA Leadership Views” for 03/16/2011.

The fate of future “flagship” missions for the Planetary Science Division (PSD) at NASA seems more imperiled today even than last week.

When the National Research Council (NRC) released its planetary science Decadal Survey 10 days ago, it was clear that plans for future planetary science flagship missions, the largest and most complex of those the agency launches, would have to go on a diet. The first two priorities are MAX-C, a Mars mission that would collect samples for later return to earth, and a mission to Europa, the moon of Jupiter that may have a liquid ocean under its icy crust. The Decadal Survey recommended that NASA proceed with MAX-C only if costs can be reduced from $3.5 billion to $2.5 billion (all cost estimates are in FY2015 dollars). If that cannot be achieved, then NASA would move to the second priority, Europa, but only if that mission cost could be reduced from $4.7 billion to an unspecified amount that would not imperil other NASA missions and allow the agency to have a balanced planetary science program.

The Decadal Survey emphasized strongly that funding for NASA’s small-class Discovery missions, medium-class New Frontiers missions, technology development, and research and analysis (R&A) should not be raided in order to enable flagship missions.

NASA provided the Decadal Survey committee with guidance on how much money the agency expected to receive for planetary science missions over the next decade. The committee built its programmatic recommendations based on those figures. Thus, the $2.5 billion figure for MAX-C appeared to signal the level of funding NASA thought it would have for a flagship mission in the next decade.

During a meeting with the Planetary Science Subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council today, however, PSD Director Jim Green made clear that the total amount of funds he thinks he will have for a flagship mission is only $1 billion. The rest of the funds would have to come from an international partner.

The news appeared to be quite a surprise to subcommittee members. As one pointed out, $1 billion is what the Decadal Survey recommended as the new cost cap for medium-class missions in the New Frontiers series, and that excludes launch costs. Green made clear that the $1 billion for a flagship mission includes launch costs “if we launch it.” If a partner launches it, the launch costs would not fall on NASA’s side of the ledger.

Partnering with the European Space Agency (ESA) thus is critical to NASA’s future planetary science ambitions. The two space agencies already cooperate extensively and agreements exist, but the expectations in the Obama Administration’s FY2012 NASA budget request are sharply different from the FY2011 request. The NASA-ESA agreements now must be renegotiated, Green said. A meeting is scheduled for the end of this month.

NASA is getting ready to launch – two years late – the Mars Science Laboratory, a $2.4 billion mission. Green stressed that the agency would not be able to mount such a mission today. He described the $1 billion figure for a flagship mission as a “back of the envelope” calculation based on the President’s budget request and the Decadal Survey’s recommendations on the importance of protecting funds for Discovery, New Frontiers, technology development and R&A. He complimented the Decadal Survey committee for providing clear decision rules on how NASA should proceed if it did not obtain the amount of funding anticipated when the Decadal Survey was written. He added that the Decadal Survey report was completed, though not released, before the President’s FY2012 budget request was known so could not have incorporated those figures.

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