Few surprises, but plenty of angst, in NASA budget proposal

The NASA budget proposal released on Monday came out pretty much as expected, given the information that leaked out in the days and weeks leading up to its release. The agency overall proposes to receive just over $17.7 billion in fiscal year 2013, less than $100 million below what the agency received for 2012. There’s funding at or near 2012 levels for programs like SLS and MPCV, and the request calls for $830 million for commercial crew development, similar to what was requested for 2012 (although the program ultimately received only $406 million).

Most of the attention, though, was focused on the agency’s planetary science program, cut by just over $300 million, or 20 percent, from 2012 levels. The bulk of that cut is absorbed by the Mars exploration program, whose budget will be cut from $587 million in 2012 to $361 million. Lunar Quest, a separate program for lunar exploration, arguably suffers a worse fate: its budget it cut from $140 million to $61.5 million, and the program will end in FY2014 after the end of the LADEE mission.

The Mars program cuts involve the termination of NASA’s participation in the ExoMars program with ESA, which was to feature an orbiter in 2016 and a lander with a rover in 2018. Instead, NASA plans to restructure its Mars program, with an eye towards less expensive Mars missions instead of a flagship-class rover, as the 2018 mission was shaping up to be. Those plans will also include coordination between NASA’s science and human spaceflight mission directorates on those revised Mars missions, which could fly in the 2018 or 2020 launch windows. “We are not talking about evaluating a new mission or a new mission concept,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden. “We are talking about a fundamental change in the way we do business.”

In a later teleconference, NASA associate administrator for science John Grunsfeld sounded optimistic that NASA would be able to mount some kind of Mars mission in 2018, in order to take advantage of favorable orbital mechanics for that window. “Mars and Earth and beautifully aligned to launch a mission in 2018,” he said. “2018 is a sweet spot, and we are highly motivated to take advantage of that.” Asked if that meant he was betting that there would be a 2018 mission, he said, “I’m not a betting person, but I would certainly plan on it, because that’s what I’m doing here.”

Such a mission, Grunsfeld said, would be a “strategic” mission developed like the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, with support from the Office of the Chief Technologist and the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. A plan for that mission would be ready by this summer. The overall cost of the mission, counting contributions from the other directorates, would be similar to a New Frontiers class mission. Grunsfeld added that there was a possibility of a Mars mission in 2016, as one of the proposals under consideration for the agency’s Discovery program is a Mars mission, but didn’t disclose additional details because the competition is ongoing.

One reason for the cut in planetary sciences spending was to cover the costs of the James Webb Space Telescope, which will get $628 million in 2013, funding that would keep the space telescope on track for a 2018 launch. That mission, along with the Mars Science Laboratory currently en route to Mars, are the agency’s two major flagship missions for the coming decade, now that the 2018 ExoMars lander is off the books. Bolden said the focus should be on these flagship missons for now. “Let’s eat this pie that we have… nibble on the two flagships that we are trying to work before we bite off another one,” Bolden said.

Earlier, speaking of MSL and JWST, Bolden called them “two flagships that the American public should look forward to with great anticipation and angst”. That curious choice of words was, in part, designed to describe the risks associated with MSL’s landing in early August. The budget implications of such flagship missions, though, have caused a completely different kind of angst among the science community.

10 comments to Few surprises, but plenty of angst, in NASA budget proposal

  • NASA Fan

    Grunsfeld has said on many occasions he was brought in by Bolden to create a working relationship between Human Exploration and SMD. Clearly there is going to budget sharing on future MARS missions, which is indeed a new paradigm. This was not possible as long as Weiler was at the helm, and perhaps was the real reason for his departure.

    Regarding an LRO style MARS mission: LRO was a stunning success for a variety of reasons unique to that period of time. The team at GSFC had worked together on many small quick missions over the prior 15 years; Griffin wanted something, anything to launch before Bush left office, so LRO funding was always available when it was needed – which is never the case for other missions. They were also given a rocket very early in their life cycle. It was way to big for their requirements; hence AMES was allowed to add LCROSS. There are plenty of missions now in Phase B that do not know what their LV is going to be. Replicating LRO again will be tough.

    Sadly, the legacy the JWST leaves in its wake is the death of the flag ship mission. And this means the end of Observatory class Science, which isn’t achievable via a string of small explorers.

    Another ominous indicator of tough times ahead for SMD (listen up JPL, GSFC, and LaRC) is that notwithstanding a Helio Explorer and an Astrophysics Explorer, there does not appear to be any new missions that will be developed between now and 2018/post JWST time frame. Lots of low level pre formulation studies, but not a mission that will feed one of these Centers. Am I reading that wrong?


  • SpaceColonizer

    I’m actually very accepting of the reason to pull out of ExoMars. It’s unsubstainable to burden the budget with constant flagship programs. I like the idea of getting more science bang for our tax buck by doing more modest missions. To me, the planetary science advocates are looking awfully selfish right now. MSL is going to land this year and there is plenty of fun to be had with that. Then we have JWST in development, an astrophysics flagship. But the planetary science advocates are demanding more planetary flagships and blaming the ONLY astrphysics flagship. Let the few flagships we can afford get spread around.

  • GeeSpace

    SpaceColonizer wrote @ February 14th, 2012 at 6:34 am
    I’m actually very accepting of the reason to pull out of ExoMars. It’s unsubstainable to burden the budget with constant flagship programs. I like the idea of getting more science bang for our tax buck by doing more modest missions.

    SpaceColonizer what is your defination of “substainable”? It seems to be based on money. But who or what determines the amount of money that is available? Generally, people who are not interested in space development or events not directly related to space.

    Commerical space development could also be considered unsubstainale by some peoplel. Yea, I know the commerical space supporters will said that commerical space is cheaper, better, etc but $800 million can feed a lot of hungry people or a lot of sick people

  • Hutchinson:
    ““These reductions will slow the development of the SLS and the Orion crew vehicle, making it impossible for them to provide backup capability for supporting the space station,” she said. “The Administration remains insistent on cutting SLS and Orion to pay for commercial crew rather than accommodating both.”
    And thus the insanity of portraying SLS/Orion as backup to the ISS continues. Well, not exactly insane from a pork defense standpoint; but crazy if you truly give a damn about what is good for the country as a whole rather than just purely local interests.

  • Space Cadet

    Missed in this report was that not only is the large mission series dead (Flagship is the new F-word) but the small (Discovery) series was also – very quietly – cancelled. Discovery -12 will be allowed to complete, but it’s the last; budgets for Discovery 13 and 14 were zeroed. All that is left of Planetary Science now is the New Fromtiers (medium) program, with a competition for NF4 to start in 2015.

  • E.P. Grondine

    Has anyone here found the proposed NEO detection budget in this yet?

  • Doug Lassiter

    Lunar Quest is, as per the budget, being absorbed into the Discovery program, which gets a hefty increase. So the functions of the Lunar Quest program aren’t necessarily disappearing. Of course, as part of Discovery program, lunar science is postured competitively with other planetary science. The Lunar Quest program was slated for rapid decrease even in FY12.

  • Space Cadet

    The language says the functions of Lunar Quest are being absorbed into Discovery. But it also zeros funding for Discovery 13 and 14 and Discovery 12 is already downselected to three candidates, so it’s really moot. I’d even say is really a smokescreen for ending the Discovery program after Discovery 12.

  • Fred Willett

    It may very well be that exploration is something else – apart from ISS cargo and crew – that is transitioning from NASA to the private sector.
    In an interview 14/2 on CNBC
    angel investor Julian Ranger, the money behind Astrobiotic’s GLXP attempt spelt out the financing.
    Total cost of the Astrobiotic GLXP mission = $100M.
    Total return he’s expecting = $170M.
    If those figures pan out it could well be the start of something.

  • SpaceColonizer


    My definition of substainable in this context is being better able to cope with potential budget cuts. A smaller, lower cost, mission is more agile when it comes to avoiding the budget axe. If there are too many large missions going on at once, that’s where the hawks are going to look. I know there are quite a few people here we think that JWST deserved the axe more than ExoMars, but at this point I disagree with that notion. Sure, a sample return sounds cool, but if we intend to send humans to Mars and back someday can’t we just do a sample return as part of that mission? Yeah, it’s a loooong time to wait, but it CAN wait. The same sort of redundancy can not be said for JWST.

    And as far as your comment about feeding the hungry and healing the sick, our tax dollars already do commit a great deal of money to those efforts, especially if you include Medicaid. To suggest that any portion of NASA’s budget, or even the whole thing(less than 1/2 of 1% of the federal budget) is the money we’re missing to allow us to do anything of significance in those areas is a straw man at best. Besides, give a man a fish he eats for a day, teach a man to fish he eats for a lifetime. Creating new industries and inspiring our children to join the next generation of scientists and engineers is, to me, a very good way to spend money vs. Food stamps.

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