When NASA announced last month that it had selected a rover similar to Curiosity for a mission slated for launch in 2020, it raised some concerns among planetary scientists that exploration of the rest of the solar system was getting shortchanged in favor of what they perceived as an overemphasis on Mars. The head of the agency’s planetary science division is now making the rounds in the community explaining that the money planned for the Mars mission was not available for any other mission.
Jim Green, head of the Planetary Science Division within NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, told attendees of the NASA Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) meeting in Washington on Monday that money in the outyears projections of the FY2013 budget proposal for what was at the time an undefined Mars mission had to be used for Mars. “We were given the opportunity—the challenge, if you will—to define strategically what that mission was to be, or we would potentially lose the money,” he said. NASA was given about a year to develop a mission that would take the place of NASA’s previously-planned participation in ESA’s ExoMars program. “If we were not able to come up with a major match in this particular area, we would lose the funding.”
NASA, of course, was able to develop a proposed mission based on the Curiosity rover, and got approval for from NASA leadership, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) by early December, Green said, when NASA publicly announced it at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.
The funding for the 2020 Mars mission, Green said, is not coming at the expense of other programs, or research and analysis (R&A) funding used to support scientists working on data from various missions. “The concept that we were robbing R&A money in this fiscal year for a rover in 2020, that’s not the case at all,” he said. “We’re working hard to clarify any misconceptions.”
Green acknowledged, though, that there are problems with the NASA planetary sciences budget that make it not compliant with the recommendations of the planetary sciences decadal survey report released nearly two years ago. At the time the FY13 budget proposal was released, he said, there were three main issues: no long-term Mars program, a decreased cadence of smaller Discovery-class missions from every two years to every five years, and no long-term outer planets flagship mission.
The first program has been solved, he said, with decision on the 2020 rover mission, but the other two problems remain. “The only way we’re going to be able to solve that is with an influx of funding,” he said. It didn’t appear that he expected such an influx any time soon, but said he would continue to advocate for those programs. “We all know that we’re in tough budget times, we all know that we’re going to have to make some sacrifices,” he said. “But we’re on a track for ten years that’s well delineated in the planetary decadal, and we’re going to everything from my perspective possible to make that a reality. That means there’s going to be a lot of work involved.”