Congress, NASA, White House

Cutting back the solar system

On Monday the Obama Administration will release its fiscal year 2013 budget proposal, and NASA has its traditional budget briefing scheduled for Monday afternoon, which this year will include a “tweetup” with a handful of the agency’s Twitter followers (you can sign up through 5 pm EST today). The details about the budget are embargoed until Monday, but some details are starting to leak out, and offer some bad news for planetary exploration in particular.

The Washington Post reports the agency’s planetary science program would get a 20-percent cut in the FY13 proposal: from $1.5 billion in 2012 to $1.2 billion in 2013, with additional reductions through 2017. While significant, that cut is not surprising: a combination of overall fiscal pressures on the agency coupled with a replan of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) meant that it was likely the agency’s planetary science program would be cut. To put the cut in perspective, just two years ago in the administration’s FY11 request NASA’s planetary science program was looking at gradually increasing budgets, to about $1.59 billion in FY13 and $1.65 billion in FY15.

Those cuts may target in particular NASA’s Mars exploration efforts, including plans to cooperate with the European Space Agency on a 2016 orbiter and 2018 lander/rover mission. Those plans, in limbo for months after the agency said it could not commit to launching ESA’s 2016 ExoMars orbiter as previously planned, may be canceled altogether now. The BBC reported earlier this week those plans are “near collapse” after NASA officials quietly informed their European counterparts about their situation.

The administration’s rumored plans are already facing criticism from the planetary science community and even a key member of Congress, the Post notes. Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), a senior member of the Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, as well as someone personally interested in planetary exploration, said the proposed cuts in NASA’s planetary programs “absolutely will not fly” in his committee. But where the money would come from to restore those cuts is unclear.

23 comments to Cutting back the solar system

  • amightywind

    including plans to cooperate with the European Space Agency on a 2016 orbiter and 2018 lander/rover mission.

    This is the first bit of good news I’ve heard in a while. A joint sample return with the Europeans is not a priority. It would be better and cheaper to bolster our rover and orbiter fleets.

  • Space Cadet

    So just how is it “cheaper” to pay 100% of the cost of a mission as compared to sharing the cost with a partner?

  • But where the money would come from to restore those cuts is unclear.

    I can think of a place. It starts with “S” and ends with “LS.”

  • amightywind

    So just how is it “cheaper” to pay 100% of the cost of a mission as compared to sharing the cost with a partner?

    Do a different mission, with program continuity with the previous ones. How about an improved MSL2 at a fraction of the cost of the original. The ‘mission’ rather than ‘program’ orientation of our planetary effort baffles me.

  • JohnHunt

    Commercial space was underfunded. Planetary science is underfunded. If only these two groups could join together to find some part of the budget was overfunded…like something that begins with an SL and ends in an S?

  • Googaw

    ‘I can think of a place. It starts with “S” and ends with “LS.”’

    The obvious target. A rocket Gingrichian in its grandiosity. Even the Spruce Goose wasn’t as oversized for the market. The actual market for heavy lift is tiny and the Delta Heavy already has plenty of spare capacity should we ever need more.

    And now that future space science missions are being cut even the dayreams of gigaprobes as SLS payloads are no longer credible. The fruit of amightywind’s approach: a preposterously oversized rocket with nothing to launch.

  • MrEarl

    Rand: “But where the money would come from to restore those cuts is unclear.
    I can think of a place. It starts with “S” and ends with “LS.”
    John Hunt: “like something that begins with an SL and ends in an S?”

    I knew that would be the first reaction of most on this blog. It’s pretty much “knee jerk” by now. The last two times the administration tried that we got the SLS and the next year the Commercial Crew budget got cut in half by a congress that is dead set on getting a SDLV.
    Quit while something remains of Commercial Crew.

  • well

    It’s always sad that the most effective exploration program we’ve had since Apollo is continually on the chopping block.

    But the fight, I assume, is over the survival of commercial crew and JWST. Worthy goals, imo.

  • Observer

    Don’t worry. When Romney is president he will make Griffin NASA administrator and NASA will boldly go forth again.

  • Robert G. Oler

    Observer wrote @ February 9th, 2012 at 2:40 pm

    Don’t worry. When Romney is president >>

    LOL I only started laughing at the Mike Griffin part after I had a good hoot at the “Romney is (small p) president”.

    I use to think that the campaign between Willard and the incumbent would be a jump ball…ie who could slime who the worst and then get elected…actually I am pretty certain now it would be a clear run to victory by Obama (this could change) only slightly less of a landslide then it would be against Sweater Eddy.

    His space rhetoric as an example, Willard cannot tell you what he is for…he is against anything he needs to be to get the nomination but he cannot describe a single change he would make in the government…what did someone say the first thing Willard of Bain capital would do is fire Mitt Romney of any company they were trying to loot (oh sorry fix).

    anyway back to laughing RGO

  • It’s always sad that the most effective exploration program we’ve had since Apollo is continually on the chopping block.

    To what are you referring?

    Don’t worry. When Romney is president he will make Griffin NASA administrator and NASA will boldly go forth again.

    After his last stint, that would be madness.

  • well

    Griffen chopped planetary science too. I was talking about the real exploration program. Unmanned.

  • Coastal Ron

    MrEarl wrote @ February 9th, 2012 at 1:40 pm

    The last two times the administration tried that we got the SLS and the next year the Commercial Crew budget got cut in half by a congress that is dead set on getting a SDLV.

    So you think Congress (or really, just a few in Congress) is punishing the Obama Administration by increasing our reliance on Russia?

    Regarding a SDLV, I think you are conveniently forgetting that first there was Ares I/V, Orion and Altair (i.e. Constellation), and now there is just SLS and MPCV. During that same time, Commercial Crew has received increasing amounts of funding. Do you see where this is trending?

    Also keep in mind that if there is a change in leadership of the NASA congressional committees, that the Administration is probably more than happy to go along with delaying the SLS program, and probably outright killing it. SLS support is limited to those that want a government-built, government-run mega-rocket, since there are no funded missions being built across the country to rally support for it. That’s a pretty small foundation, especially considering what the Republican Presidential candidates have been saying about wanting more commercial involvement in NASA.

    Quit while something remains of Commercial Crew.

    Congress may not fully fund Commercial Crew to the degree that the Administration requests, but they won’t kill it.

  • common sense

    @ MrEarl wrote @ February 9th, 2012 at 1:40 pm

    Bear in mind though that Hutchinson is on her way out and most likely Nelson too. Remains Shelby.

    Constellation/SLS/MPCV got a reprieve but it may not last that long.

    These elections are Obama’s to lose. Romney is a week candidate. The others…

  • Alex

    Very disappointed by all this, but the cut ESA-NASA missions were themselves stripped down compromises with an iffy science return and a seemingly impractical, stutter-step approach to Sample Return in the 2020s.

    Further, as fantastic as our Mars Science Program is, it’s not without sin. The MSL was nearly a JWST boondoggle (and may still be if it fails to land). Perhaps less money will teach them how to better stay within the budgets.

    Finally, I’d think/hope that 300+ million a year for Mars is at least enough to launch an MRO replacement in a few years time, or maybe bring back Mars Scouts.

  • BeanCounterfromDownunder

    The less money approach could turn out to be a positive. Evidence Commercial Crew where NASA has been forced to use SAAs rather than move to FARs as the contracting vehicle. Several other advantages of SAAs include payment for milestones completed successfully, less NASA oversight, less NASA overhead burden, more commercial say in the finished product.
    Perhaps this approach will have to be adopted in other programs.

  • vulture4

    Every other program is being cut, particularly Technology Development, arguably the only part of NASA that tries to do something useful. But SLS/Orion has been forced to accept nearly half a billion dollars (roughly the same amount cut from Commercial Crew) for a one-off unmanned launch of an Orion on a Delta that it did not even ask for. There are no plans to man-rate the Delta or even again launch an Orion from CX-37.

  • vulture4

    On Mars I agree with amightywind. Sample return from Mars is expensive and not as useful as rovers and orbiters. However sample return from asteroids (where no lander/launcher is needed) can be quite practical.

  • eu

    As Speaker Gingrich as correctly pointed out, we’re getting way too little “bang for the buck” from NASA; hence, these cuts are prudent and well-reasoned by the Administration. If, instead of any of the planned missions, NASA offered a $500 Million prize to the first probe able to explore the Europan Ocean, it could save an additional $700 Million, and we’d have better science in return, most likely from multiple probes to Europa.

    If it escrowed the prize purse in a spectrum of ordinary mutual funds, by the time it could be claimed (still faster than NASA), the payout would be covered by investment returns alone, and the principal could be reused again in the same manner.

  • Mark

    Don’t be too sure that the shortfall would be handled by eliminating human exploration (i.e. Orion and SLS.) Eliminating Commercial Crew would seal the breach quite nicely.

  • vulture4

    Eliminating Commercial Crew will not save a penny as long as we have to use either Soyuz or Orion to transport personnel to the ISS. There has been criticism regarding the cost and productivity of the ISS, and it is a valid concern. But unless ISS can be made productive, there is no chance at all to make BEU human spaceflight productive. The next step after Commercial Crew is not BEO, it is RLV. After we have an acccessible infrastructure in LEO we can begin to support human activities in cislunar space and then on the lunar surface.

  • Vladislaw

    Coastal Ron wrote:

    “So you think Congress (or really, just a few in Congress) is punishing the Obama Administration by increasing our reliance on Russia?”

    It would also set up a Republican to beable to say how the last adminstration or current, depending where they choose to use it during the election cycles, refused to do commercial crew ( Obama the socialist doesn’t like commercial) and it is up to the Republicans to fund commercial crew and stop using the Russians that Obama loved to fund.

    It won’t really matter that President Obama tried to fund commercial crew, the vast bulk of the American public wouldn’t know that and Obama refusing to fund commercial crew because he hates business and is a socialist fits into their narrative.

  • Robert G. Oler

    Mark wrote @ February 10th, 2012 at 6:53 am

    Don’t be too sure that the shortfall would be handled by eliminating human exploration (i.e. Orion and SLS.) Eliminating Commercial Crew would seal the breach quite nicely.>>

    as Newts moment in the sun has proved there is no support for “human exploration”…and it iwll be the first to go when the money runs dry which it will.

    Are you enjoying the notion Mark, that it will be the right wing of the GOP that kills your big government exploration program! I am RGO

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