NASA

Mars rover funding cuts: will there be a backlash?

In last week’s issue of The Space Review, I reported on some Mars scientists were concerned about the long-term future of the exploration of the Red Planet, given shifting NASA priorities and funding. While the near-term picture looks promising, with the arrival of the Phoenix lander in two months and the planned 2009 launch of the Mars Science Laboratory, the picture beyond 2009 looks rather fuzzy. NASA officials, including Mike Griffin, have defended the cuts in the five-year budget plans for NASA by saying that Mars exploration is being rebalanced to help support other science programs, like outer solar system exploration, that have not fared as well as recent years.

Now it appears NASA’s Mars programs are facing some short-term pain as well. SPACE.com and the AP report that NASA has asked the Mars Exploration Rover program to cut $4 million from its budget for the remainder of FY2008. That likely means that the Spirit rover will remain in an extended hibernation period after the winter ends, instead of resuming scientific work. That cut could be extended into FY2009. SPACE.com added that the Mars Odyssey orbiter, launched in 2001, is “on the cost-cutting table” as well.

Some will argue that the rovers, on the surface for over four years each, have long exceeded the planned 90-day missions, and that Spirit in particular is not in the best of shape, suffering from a stuck wheel that impairs the rover’s mobility, so these cuts are not catastrophic. However, don’t be surprised if there’s some vocal opposition—among scientists, advocates, and supporters on Capitol Hill—to these proposed cuts in the days and weeks to come. Whether that will make any difference, though, remains to be seen.

Update 3/25 7:30 am: After those initial reports, NASA spokesmen told CNN and the Pasadena Star-News that “shutting down of one of the rovers is not an option,” although they confirmed that the order to cut the program’s budget had been issued. “The rovers program will continue and not one rover will be impacted by this budget challenge, period,” spokesman Dwayne Brown told the Star-News. One wonders, if these statements are accurate, if the rover program is playing a version of the “Washington Monument strategy”: claiming a high-profile program will be affected if a budget cut is enacted.

30 comments to Mars rover funding cuts: will there be a backlash?

  • “NASA officials, including Mike Griffin, have defended the cuts in the five-year budget plans for NASA by saying that Mars exploration is being rebalanced to help support other science programs, like outer solar system exploration, that have not fared as well as recent years.”

    The only reason outer solar system exploration has not fared well in recent years is because Griffin killed NASA’s only outer moons mission and all associated nuclear power and propulsion development to fund a needlessly duplicative and expensive Ares I/Orion vehicle that never fit the VSE budget to begin with.

    Had ESAS recommended and/or Griffin selected a human space flight architecture that actually fit the VSE budget coming out of the gates, there would be no need to rob Peter’s (Mars) side of the planetary science budget to pay Paul (outer moons). Paul would still have his own budget.

    “NASA has asked the Mars Exploration Rover program to cut $4 million from its budget for the remainder of FY2008.”

    The VSE was a prescription for a sustainable program “to the Moon, Mars, and beyond”. There was suppossed to be broad progress against all of these priority targets.

    But where is the “beyond” effort now? It’s disappeared. There are no telescopes planned for extrasolar planet characterization. And there is no outer moons mission, at least one with its own budget that doesn’t have to borrow from other planetary efforts.

    Where is the future of the “Mars” effort now? Slipping over the horizon. The 2011 orbiter has already slipped into 2013, the 2009 MSL mission will likely slip into 2011, and the near-term technology budget can’t support MSR development on schedule.

    Where is the present “Mars” effort now? Undergoing a slow-rolling cancellation. We can’t even come up with a lousy $4 million to keep both halves of what is arguably the most successful planetary science mission ever mounted fully operational.

    Where is the “Moon” effort now? Practically nonexistent or suffering from unclosable architectures. There are no lunar robotic development missions after LRO/LCROSS, and the human lunar architecture can’t close without going to more than five SRB segments or composite SRB casings on Ares V, thereby losing most Ares I component commonality and cost-sharing.

    All to pay for a duplicative, unnecessary, oversized, and technically crippled Ares I/Orion vehicles to deliver a handful of astronauts to low-Earth orbit.

    It would be sad if it wasn’t so pathetic.

    Sigh…

  • What the hell? Did JPL only budget for a 90-sol mission? Are they using up all their funding to do photo analysis, rather than using the power of the internet like Galaxy Zoo or Seti@home? If this happened in a real business, three or four dozen people would find themselves laid off to pay for the funding shortfall.

  • Dennis Wingo

    Well the real story is that JPL is way overbudget with their new programs and NASA has told them (as they have many other missions) to stay within their budget. In order to keep spending JPL goes and cuts funds from other missions. These cuts did not come from NASA HQ. There is an updated article about this on CNN that Keith C links to.

  • D. Messier

    Wow. I’d hate to how some of you would react if JPL really actually screwed up. As in, crashing their next spacecraft into the Red Planet or, say, blowing up three employees during a routine test.

    The center’s success at Mars has been tremendous. Have they had cost overruns? Sure. But, somehow I doubt that’s the only thing putting pressure on NASA’s budget. Or the largest overruns they’re dealing with right now.

    The Lou Friedman thing is funny. I can’t say I agree with him or TPS on a lot of things, but telling him to sit down and shut up before he’s even had a chance to say anything is rather absurd. Especially given all the criticism over Griffin’s recent calls for his critics to be ostracized. I would think a range of views on space matters would be encouraged.

  • Chance

    “However, don’t be surprised if there’s some vocal opposition—among scientists, advocates, and supporters on Capitol Hill—”

    While your update makes it a moot point, I’d say this quote is an understatement. I would venture to guess more people could name both rovers on Mars than could name a single member of the current astronaut corps.

  • Kevin Matalin

    “The only reason outer solar system exploration has not fared well in recent years is because Griffin killed NASA’s only outer moons mission and all associated nuclear power and propulsion development to fund a needlessly duplicative and expensive Ares I/Orion vehicle that never fit the VSE budget to begin with.”

    This is not really fair or accurate. You cannot blame every problem on Griffin or on ESAS.

    The program that Griffin canceled, the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (a subset of the Prometheus program, which was canceled taking JIMO with it) was never a realistic option for outer planets exploration and everybody, including the scientific community, knew it. If you look in the Prometheus final report, you will note that the cost of JIMO was over $20 billion. Do you honestly think that NASA could have funded that program? Should they have? Griffin was right to kill it and the big questions are why it lasted so long.

    Prometheus was one of Sean O’Keefe’s pet projects and it demonstrated how little he understood about the agency that he ran. JIMO was always too big to be completed, and it would have encountered numerous technical problems not only with its nuclear power source and its high energy ion thrusters, but it undoubtedly would have encountered problems with its instruments as well (for example, the nuclear reactor and its associated subsystems like pumps would have affected the high-power optics and the magnetometer on the spacecraft).

    A lot of money was spent on Prometheus/JIMO, and most of it was wasted developing a power source that was abandoned. Not all of it was wasted, however, and JPL was able to do some important work on radiation hardened electronics. But when all is said and done, one of the major reasons that NASA is only now restarting its outer planets flagship program (which the community agreed years ago should be a Europa mission) is because NASA spent several years and several hundred million dollars on a dead-end system. So, if you want to lay the blame somewhere, lay it on Sean O’Keefe.

    There is, however, a lot of blame to go around. You can lay some on Dan Goldin as well, for a rather half-hearted Europa Explorer effort earlier this decade. In fact, if you look at the history of this subject, there have been numerous detailed studies of a Europa mission that have been started, then halted. Griffin and Alan Stern are trying to get the agency back on course to do an outer planet flagship. NASA still has not decided if this should be a Titan mission, a Jupiter systems (i.e. Ganymede) mission, or a Europa mission. But that’s a different issue.

  • Anonymous, while I agree with your analysis of ESAS, I think you are a little unfair — everyone at NASA has had their budget cut below expected levels, human spaceflight and automated alike.

    That said, even this person — who thinks too far much is being spent trying to automate things beyond reconnaissance at Mars and elsewhere, things that cannot effectively be automated, and that we _should_ pull in our horns and concentrate on getting geologists onto Earth’s moon — also thinks a decision to shut down operating rovers on Mars is absurd. They are there. Most of the money has been spent. It is far more cost effective in every sense to keep them operating as long as possible, rather than spending large sums on new vehicles that are far more costly and not all that much more capable.

    – Donald

  • anonymous.space

    “Do you honestly think that NASA could have funded that program? Should they have?”

    No, I agree that JIMO was a white elephant, and O’Keefe is to blame for that. But my argument was not about JIMO, but about the lack of funding for any outer moons mission.

    “Griffin was right to kill it and the big questions are why it lasted so long.”

    It was not right to redirect all outer planets funding to Ares I/Orion, and Griffin is to blame for that. Even after JIMO’s cancellation, some or all of the remaining JIMO funding should have been used to pursue a realistic outer moons mission.

    It’s okay to make sacrifices in low priority or poorly performing program to pay for another, as long the other program is a high priority and performing well.

    It was a very bad decision to sacrifice a high priority VSE element like the outer moons for a duplicative and unnecessarily expensive (and now technically crippled) LEO launch vehicle and human capsule. ESAS and Griffin should have picked a solution for LEO transport that fit within the available VSE wedge from the outset. And even if they couldn’t do that, other VSE priorities should have been the option of last resort for budget offsets.

    “Griffin and Alan Stern are trying to get the agency back on course to do an outer planet flagship. NASA still has not decided if this should be a Titan mission, a Jupiter systems (i.e. Ganymede) mission, or a Europa mission. But that’s a different issue.”

    The issue is not which outer moon, but that there’s not enough funding, even after the massive cuts to the Mars program, to pull it off. Now the contributions of the European space agencies, not NASA, will decide whether an outer moons mission is pursued.

    FWIW…

  • They just need to make it through this year. As the US is entering a recession all departments are having to cut back. Once again, when the economy gets stronger again the $ will flow into departments like this ahain.

    They just need to make through the short term on these cuts.

  • Keith Cowing

    Oh dear, I fear that I have upset poor Doug once again.. Tsk tsk. Bad Keith. BAD Keith.

  • Kevin Matalin

    “It was not right to redirect all outer planets funding to Ares I/Orion, and Griffin is to blame for that. Even after JIMO’s cancellation, some or all of the remaining JIMO funding should have been used to pursue a realistic outer moons mission.”

    But Prometheus/JIMO was funded by ESMD, not the Science Mission Directorate. It was treated as a “gift” to the science community. When Griffin canceled it because ESMD had no direct need for the reactor and because the cost was clearly prohibitive for science missions, it was ESMD money that went back into ESMD.

    Now you could argue that as long as NASA was doing JIMO/Prometheus, then it was not going to spend SMD money to do a Europa mission, but that’s really misunderstanding the way that NASA does its budgets. If JIMO/Prometheus had never existed, the money would have had to get carved out of SMD’s budget in some way.

    Not every problem at NASA can/should be laid at the door of ESAS. It’s a dramatic oversimplification.

  • anonymous.space

    “But Prometheus/JIMO was funded by ESMD, not the Science Mission Directorate.”

    This statement is simply not true. Some funding for generic Prometheus technologies resided in Exploration Systems, but JIMO-specific and some Prometheus funding resided in Space Science.

    For example, in NASA’s FY 2004 budget request, page SAE 2-21 includes $279.2 million for “Project Prometheus”. The breakout is:

    JIMO $92.6 million
    Nuclear Power $55.7 million
    Nuclear Propulsion $130.9 million

    All this is part of the Solar System Exploration Technology and Advanced Concepts budget, which is part of the Space Science budget. one can check it out for oneself here (add http://www.):

    nasa.gov/about/budget/AN_Budget_04_detail.html

    There’s a link for “Solar System Exploration” under “Space Science”.

    “that’s really misunderstanding the way that NASA does its budgets”

    I’d urge anyone to check NASA’s budget documents at the HQ CFO’s website before throwing similar implications at other posters.

    Stones, glass houses, and all that…

    “Not every problem at NASA can/should be laid at the door of ESAS.”

    Agreed. But no one is making such a ridiculous claim. I’m only arguing that the budget for an outer moons mission — one of a handful of key VSE elements — should not have been zeroed out to pay for an unnecessarily duplicative and expensive LEO launcher and capsule that never fit within their VSE budget wedge to begin with.

    Either NASA should have pursued a set of requirements and vehicles for the new LEO human transport system that fit within the available VSE budget wedge, or NASA should have found other offsets and not eliminated/raided other VSE priorities (lunar robotic, Mars, outer moons, extrasolar planet telescopes) to fund that system.

    If we’re going to make sacrifices in other programs, then they should be focused on low priority programs (not VSE priorities) and they should go towards quality, priority programs that advance the VSE (not unnecessary, bloated, and technically crippled LEO launch vehicles and human capsules).

    “It’s a dramatic oversimplification.”

    It’s a dramatic oversimplication to misportray my argument as laying every NASA problem at the door of ESAS.

    FWIW…

  • SpaceMan

    Wake up !

    NASA is, and has been for several decades, a conduit for welfare money to the aerospace “cabal”. What is or isn`t “accomplished” due to the flow of cash etc is only a secondary consideration to the actors involved, irrespective of what the “public” thinks/wants.

    Once you acknowledge that fact then all the pieces fall into their proper places.

    Yea, it sucks. So what ? All those dead bodies in the Middle East suck also as do the people w/o enough to eat, no access to health care, no adequate housing etc.

    Quit whining about it and deal with reality as it is. Be happy there is a space program at all & stop attacking people that are working to keep it going like Mike Griffin et al.

    As Griffin has stated in public more than once, he is an Administrator, not a decider, so he administrates the utilization of the resources he is allowed to have.

  • Anon2

    SPACE MAN: NASA is, and has been for several decades, a conduit for welfare money to the aerospace “cabal”. What is or isn`t “accomplished” due to the flow of cash etc is only a secondary consideration to the actors involved, irrespective of what the “public” thinks/wants.

    Once you acknowledge that fact then all the pieces fall into their proper places.

    Did you mean to communicate any news with this tidbit?

    The fact is that many are dealing with it.

    The reason that NASA’s budget will eventually implode is because it has become a welfare program, and lost sight of directly serving the American people. The corporate welfare program can work in a time of economic good times, but when the budget deficit explodes (with the coming retirement of the baby boomers) the story will be much different.

    - Anon

  • D. Messier

    Well, alls well that ends well. As for some of these other comments, I don’t see anything that’s really sufficiently relevant (or mature enough) to warrant a response.

    One brief, general observation: there’s been far more complaints and ranting directed at JPL for relatively modest budget problems than there was directed at Scaled Composites blew up three workers last year and injured three others, their bodies riddled with fiberglass shrapnel. There wasn’t a whole lot of journalistic digging back then in what happened; some news sites have all but ignored the matter since, including the fines and subsequent appeal. Although, I might note, they have continued to cover Scaled and Virgin with an almost worshipful attitude.

    That tells you a lot right there about the state of the space media and blogosphere. None of it very good.

  • Keith Cowing

    “Well, alls well that ends well. As for some of these other comments, I don’t see anything that’s really sufficiently relevant (or mature enough) to warrant a response.”

    Um, you just did respond, Doug.

    As for your other comments, if you are the space journalist that you claim to be why don’t YOU cover these neglected topics instead of complaining about how others do or do not cover them?

    Its so easy to just sit on your hands and complain, isn’t it Doug?

  • [...] entusiasta né della performance scientifica di Spirit né del management del JPL, ma anche dalle parti di Space Politics c’è chi la pensa in modo [...]

  • D. Messier

    Ummm…I am. And I have been.

    Huh? That’s very interesting. Very interesting, indeed. :-)

    Anyway, this blog is really about Stern’s departure and the future of NASA science. Sorry it went off course like this. It’s been really great to read everybody’s comments. Some very interesting and relevant posts here. Good stuff. Thanks Jeff, for running this blog.

  • D. Messier

    Oops…wrong thread. This one’s about the rovers. Although the question Jeff raised about a backlash seems to have happened with Stern resigning.

  • Keith Cowing

    WRT writing articles, Doug “Ummm…I am. And I have been.”

    Gee, where are they?

  • Vladislaw

    “than there was directed at Scaled Composites blew up three workers last year and injured three others,” D Messier

    Scaled Composites is a C O R P O R A T I O N, a corporation is a legal entity (technically, a juristic person) which has a legal personality distinct from those of its members. So Scaled is NOT a person, the corporation couldn’t blow up ANYONE. If those workers were “blown up” as you say, with some sort of malicious intent, you should write about YOUR FACTS that support that charge. So NAME THE NAMES, which person employed by or running scaled pushed a button and blew them up? Last year 30,000 people were killed by FORD, TOYOTA, GM, etc etc etc, why are you not ranting about how the automakers murdered 30000 people?

    Humans are pretty smart monkeys but we still have not even managed STAIRS! Humans still fall and break their necks walking up and down stairs, and somehow dealing with rockets NO ONE is going to get blown up?

  • D. Messier

    Mmmmm…..boy this discussion was off course. I thought it was MER and the changes those decisions seem to have spurred in NASA.

    But, to answer the question: I’ve been covering a range of space stories for the last year or so. Due to time and technical constraints, it’s only been real intense in the last two months. Whether you can call this “writing articles” is….well, yeah I would say so. Not with everything, of course. It’s an interesting medium that exists somewhere short of traditional print journalism but more than just regurgitating stuff.

    The whole thing remains a work in progress. And I’m certain I’ll be able to do more with it as we get everything set up properly and I can get a few other things off my desk.

    OK, lunch break over….

  • Keith Cowing

    “Mmmmm…..boy this discussion was off course. I thought it was MER and the changes those decisions seem to have spurred in NASA.”

    I seem to recall you bringing my comments about Lou Friedman. Or were you referring to someone else’s comments about Lou?

  • D. Messier

    Mmmm….yeah…and your point being…?

  • Keith Cowing

    “Mmmm….yeah…and your point being…?”

    You are the one who sent things “off course”.

  • D. Messier

    Oh….OK. Well, I was wondering why you would have circled the discussion back to your original remarks. I remained puzzled over why a non-profit dedicated to planetary science would not be supportive of an ongoing planetary mission. I still don’t understand why they should be criticized for it. Especially since the story was still developing and they had said nothing at that point. Nothing in this thread has really clarified that.

    As for Vladislaw, I don’t really understand what you’re saying either, but you raise very interesting points somewhere in there. I think. The last interview I read with Burt Rutan (back in February, I think, by Alan Boyle), he didn’t seem to know precisely what had gone wrong.

  • Keith Cowing

    You said “I remained puzzled over why a non-profit dedicated to planetary science would not be supportive of an ongoing planetary mission.”

    followed immediately by “I still don’t understand why they should be criticized for it.”

    Um, Doug YOU just criticized them! What part of this don’t you understand?

  • D. Messier

    Keith, calm down. Reread the post. Reread the entire thread. Then read it again. Do so as many times as you need to understand what this thread is about.

    I have not criticized Lou Friedman. Or TPS. I questioned why you would have preemptively gone after them before they had a chance to say anything about the current controversy.

    You’ve provided no answers. You’ve respond with a childish tirade against me. You made grossly ill-informed claims about my writing and journalistic activities. And now you’re twisting my words.

    Enough.

  • Keith Cowing

    Poor Doug. So easily offended.

    As for my “grossly ill-informed claims about my writing and journalistic activities.”

    Shut me up – show me a link to something you have written about space – recently.

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