In its continued quest to restore $300 million to NASA’s planetary science program, The Planetary Society described in a blog post this week what that restored funding could provide. According to “newly-formed internal budget numbers” provide to the organization from unnamed “sources within the planetary science community,” that additional funding could, in the long term, fund a 2018 Mars lander mission to cache samples for later return to Earth, a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, and could also move up the next Discovery mission selection one year, to 2015.
Of course, all of that is not possible with just an additional $300 million. While details (including the specific “budget numbers”) are not included in the post, the implication is that not only would the $300-million cut proposed in fiscal year 2012 be restored, but also the overall funding level of $1.5 billion would be retained for the indefinite future. For example, the reformulated Europa mission included in that calculation has a cost of at least $2 billion (down from the $4.8 billion estimated during development of the planetary science decadal survey); that’s about seven years’ worth of $300-million funding wedges alone. An Mars Science Laboratory-based caching rover would cost $1.3–1.7 billion, according to the Mars Program Planning Group, significantly more than what’s likely available in projected budgets for a 2018 mission.
So not only would that $300 million need to be restored in FY2013, that overall budget would have to be maintained through the end of the decade and into the 2020s to afford the Mars and Europa missions. (A separate issue is whether it’s better to spend that money on two flagship-class missions, versus one flagship and increased frequency of smaller Discovery and New Frontiers missions.) That kind of long-term planning is a challenge in the current uncertain fiscal environment.