14 February 2012

Proposed NASA Budget Cuts Mars Exploration by $226 Million

Posted by Ryan Anderson

As you have no doubt heard, the proposed budget for fiscal year was announced today. Overall, NASA did alright, ending up with $17.71 billion as compared to the $17.77 billion estimate for fiscal year 2012. However, this number hides some painful changes, specifically in the Mars exploration program. Here is the overall NASA budget, and here are the planetary science details.

The proposed budget would cut the Mars program from $587 million in FY 2012 to $360.8 million in FY 2013. That’s a cut of $226 million, or  about 38%. Ouch.

Now, before you grab your torches and pitchforks, I should point out that it’s not surprising for the Mars budget to come down somewhat. For the past few years, Mars spending has been especially high as MSL was being finalized and, finally, launched successfully. It costs a lot less to run a mission than to build one, and so some of the reductions in the budget reflect that.

The real problem here is that this huge cut means that the planned ESA/NASA Mars missions for 2016 and 2018 will be scrapped:

“NASA is terminating further activity on the formulation activity for the NASA/ ESA ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter 2016 (EMTGO) mission and planning for the previous NASA/ESA Mars 2018 mission concept”

This is not only frustrating from a scientific point of view, but it is going to sour our relationship with the European Space Agency. ESA isn’t going to want to work with us if we pull the rug out from under them like this, and NASA will be hurt in the long run if we can’t share costs with ESA.

The Mars Research and Analysis budget is also down from $19 million to $15.2 million, which sort of adds insult to injury. If we’re not allowed to have new missions, could we at least have a little boost in funding for studying the data that already exists?

All the funding for Mars extended missions has also been lumped together into one pot, which makes me worry that we may end up seeing a scenario where Opportunity has to be shut down to preserve Odyssey and MRO as data relays for MSL. The money listed for FY 2012 for the current extended missions (MER, MRO, Odyssey, Mars Express) adds up to $70.3 million. The combined “Mars Extended Operations” item weighs in at $53.7 million. That worries me. Needless to say, cutting currently operating missions is a phenomenally stupid way to save money: we’ve already spent the money to get the mission to Mars, and we’ve gotten really good at running the mission efficiently with years of practice.

There’s an increase in funding for “Mars Next Decade”, which I suppose is appropriate because we’re going to need to figure out what to do in the next decade now that the ESA joint missions have been canceled.

I should point out that Mars isn’t the only area of planetary science that is hurt by the proposed cuts. The outer planets program is also set to be cut by $38.1 million, or ~31%. This cut is not really explained, but the budget document says that various studies of flagship missions to Europa, Uranus and Enceladus will be conducted. This might sound nice, but at the budget briefing today it was pretty clear that new flagship missions of any kind are off the table for the foreseeable future.  Here is a tweet from Jeff Foust, paraphrasing NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden’s response to a question about future flagship missions:

@jeff_foust Bolden: let’s nibble on the flagships we’re currently working on (MSL and JWST) before we bite off another. (Someone’s hungry…)

Of course, the elephant in the room in discussing the NASA science budget is the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). You may recall that the space science community rallied together when faced with the imminent cancellation of the massively over-budget JWST and convinced congress to fund it. I suspect that a lot of the cuts we’re seeing in the planetary budget are partly the result of JWST eating our lunch. At the budget briefing today, Bolden dodged all questions related to JWST and basically said, “it’s going to be a great telescope” and “we had to make some hard decisions in these tough economic times”. Again, some tweets sum things up nicely:

@jeff_foust If your drinking game phrase for this NASA briefing was “very difficult fiscal times”, you’ve probably passed out by now.

@NASAWatch What’s rather amazing is how little information Bolden released and how many substantive questions he dodged during this briefing.

Given the grim news for planetary science in this proposed budget, the Planetary Society has already vowed to fight tooth and nail. They have issued a strongly worded press release with some good quotes from the Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye and Society President, my thesis adviser Jim Bell.

From the press release:

“How many government programs can you think of that consistently fill people with pride, awe, and wonder? NASA’s planetary exploration program is one of the few, and so it seems particularly ironic and puzzling that it has been so specifically targeted for such drastic budget cuts,” Jim Bell commented.

“Now that the budget is out, The Planetary Society will mobilize its tens of thousands of members and supporters in the fight to restore science in NASA to its rightful place,” Jim Bell said. “We will work with Congress to advocate a balanced program of solar system exploration with exciting and compelling missions that are supported by the public—who ultimately are the ones paying for everything NASA does.”

Ok, that’s your cue. Time to grab your pitchforks.