NASA

Planetary missions also have to worry about a senior review

On Monday, the head of NASA’s astrophysics division warned that tight budgets could keep the agency from continuing to fund all of its ongoing astronomy missions when they come up for review early next year. A day later, the head of NASA’s planetary science division offered a similar warning regarding planetary science missions, with the possibility that some high-profile missions may lose funding and have to shut down after 2014.

Speaking at a meeting of the planetary science subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council, held via teleconference on Tuesday, NASA planetary science division director Jim Green said planetary missions that have already completed their primary missions would be subject to a senior review next year, the guidelines for which will be finalized in early 2014. A number of missions will be involved in that review, including Cassini, Curiosity, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, Opportunity, and NASA contributions to ESA’s Mars Express mission. Spacecraft that have not completed their primary missions, like Juno and New Horizons, are not included, and Green said the MESSENGER Mercury orbiter would also not likely be included in the senior review because it will be nearing the end of its mission as it runs out of fuel.

The overall budget for funding extended missions will be about the same in fiscal year 2015 as it is in 2014, at least based on the administration’s budget proposals, Green said. The challenge is that there are more missions up for review, most notably with the inclusion of Curiosity, which completes its primary mission in 2014. “This will be a very interesting competition,” Green said. “We have two very expensive flagship missions, Cassini and Curiosity, which are expensive to operate even in an extended mission phase, along with a lot of our other missions, which are doing tremendous science at a lower cost. So, this particular competition we’ll have to do very carefully.”

That upcoming senior review has already raised concerns in the planetary science community because of the perceived competition between Cassini and Curiosity. The convention wisdom in the community is that there is not enough money to afford to continue operating both Cassini and Curiosity; or, if they are both continued, fund any other ongoing missions. In a head-to-head competition, Curiosity, on Mars only since August 2012, would seem to have the advantage over Cassini, which has been orbiting Saturn since mid-2004. On the other hand, scientists note that Mars is a frequent destination for NASA missions, while there are no Saturn missions on the books after Cassini.

33 comments to Planetary missions also have to worry about a senior review

  • amightywind

    More Washington Monument syndrome coming from the planetary community. But if you must turn one off, the choice is easy. Turn off Cassini. They are into the 10th year of a 4 year mission.

  • Coastal Ron

    amightywind said:

    But if you must turn one off, the choice is easy. Turn off Cassini. They are into the 10th year of a 4 year mission.

    Apparently you’re not aware that Cassini is scheduled to do a controlled fall into Saturn’s atmosphere in 2017.

    But this does bring up a good subject of whether operating a science mission beyond it’s design life is a “good” idea. In this case, “good” is whatever parameters you want to use.

    If the goal is to maximize the taxpayers money, it sure seems like operating science equipment for as long as it’s returning useful data makes sense. For instance, would it have made sense to turn off Voyager 1&2 a couple of decades ago? Or the Opportunity rover on Mars, which has lasted 38X longer than it’s planned mission, and is still going.

    I would think that these types of extended missions make a lot of sense, especially when the funding for follow on missions is likely to be pretty sparse.

    But if you don’t want to wring all the value possible from the U.S. Taxpayers investment, OK. But I disagree.

    • Hiram

      “But this does bring up a good subject of whether operating a science mission beyond it’s design life is a ‘good’ idea. In this case, ‘good’ is whatever parameters you want to use.”

      Cassini is pretty wonderful, but it is somewhat jaw-dropping that our annual investment in Cassini operations is about $50M. Pretty much the same as for MSL/Curiosity.

      The “planned mission” duration is an important number. It’s the length of operational time the team proposes at the outset as being worth the cost. So once you get past that number, it’s gravy, and not necessarily worth the cost according to the original assessment by the mission team. Doing more is always good, but it isn’t always optimal in science/dollar.

      That’s what Senior Reviews are all about. To assess the science/dollar, taking into account the cost to new opportunities of keeping a mission going. That’s how “good” is parametrized by the people who know best. Continuing these missions until they die naturally may not make a lot of sense, if it is these missions that are making the funding for follow-on missions pretty sparse.

    • amightywind

      You gonna turn off a year old $2.5 billion mission instead? 99% of the value of the scientific value of Cassini mission has been realized. The choice is obvious if not pleasant. When someone asks me, “Choose a budget item to cut.” I pick one. Saying no isn’t an alternative.

  • Coastal Ron

    amightywind said:

    When someone asks me, “Choose a budget item to cut.” I pick one. Saying no isn’t an alternative.

    The other alternative is to not spend money on new things.

    Here’s the deal. If you can’t maximize the money I give you, then why should I give you any additional money? It’s like a kid who gets a new toy, plays with it for a day, and then asks for a new toy the next day, and continues that pattern. Why reward bad behavior?

    And, as it turns out, the decision on Cassini has already been made to end the mission in 2017, so you’re talking about something that has already been evaluated and planned to end. You need to pick something else to take the money from.

    Another example of this were the people that thought it was a good idea to throw away a $100B science laboratory in space (i.e. the ISS) just after it was finished being built. Talk about ADHD.

    No, if you can’t show that you know how to maximize the value of the money you’re given, then you shouldn’t be given anymore money. It’s pretty simple.

    • Hiram

      Well, with due defense for Cassini, it’s simply misleading to compare it’s cancellation with throwing away ISS “just after it was finished being built”, or asking for a “new toy the next day”. Cassini has done a wonderful job since 2004 — the job that was planned for it. It has also done a lot more. The fact that it would otherwise stop in 2017 only means that pulling that stoppage date back by a couple of years saves $150M. Not small change. But it comes down to science/dollar.

    • amightywind

      thought it was a good idea to throw away a $100B science

      In business we have the idea of not throwing good money after bad. ISS is a classic government malinvestment, like Solyndra, Tesla, windo power… ISS is worth far less than the $3 billion a year lavished on it. But it does give Vladimir Putin a nice platform from which to promote his evil state.

      • DCSCA

        In business we have the idea of not throwing good money after bad. gusts Windy.

        Government is not a business, Windy. If it was, Wyoming would have four post offices and the JSC would have been built in Florida, not Texas, and Lovell would have said “Titusville, we have a problem.”

      • Fred Willett

        Actually Tesla paid back all their loan (plus interest) years ahead of the required deadline. By any measure it was not a bad investment, but a very good one for the US taxpayer.

  • TwoBirdsInTheHand

    I don’t get the concept of holding Cassini’s long years of success against it. No other mission has delivered as much groundbreaking scientific discoveries, based not only on my personal impressions, but on the total number of scientific papers published. Saturn is the most target-rich environment in the Solar System, boasting not-yet-understood huge storms at both poles, a major ring system, over 60 moons, the only satellite spitting water into space, and the only satellite with a significant atmosphere. In 2017, Cassini will fly between the rings and the planet 22 times, which in itself would be judged by NASA worthy of a New Frontiers ($1 Billion) mission – for a tiny fraction (in comparison) of additional cost. Cassini has a full suite of instruments in place NOW to study phenomena that are not fully understood, for pennies compared to the total budget.

    Cancel Cassini? In favor of what? Throw away a mission that is already at the most target rich environment around, in order to research a new mission that’s a decade from delivering less science?

    • Hiram

      “Cancel Cassini? In favor of what?”

      Actually, there are lots of exciting planetary mission concepts that are waiting for new starts. Also, the Senior Review won’t judge a mission on the basis of what it’s done, but rather on the basis of what it looks like it can do.

      “… most target rich environment around …”

      Uh, what? When did Saturn achieve that status?

      “…in order to research a new mission that’s a decade from delivering less science.”

      That’s said by someone who didn’t know what Cassini would be cancelled in favor of.

      “… for pennies compared to the total budget.”

      $50M/year (total U.S. cost $2.6B for what has, thus far, been a ten year mission). Them’s pretty big pennies.

      Science/dollar. Science/dollar. Recite that, over and over. Make that Future science/dollar.

    • amightywind

      I don’t get the concept of holding Cassini’s long years of success against it.

      It’s like Tony Soprano said, “It’s over!”

  • DCSCA

    Golly Gee. Oh where oh where are the creative capitalists in the deep pocketed Newspace hobbyist set rushing to rescue and subsidize and/or sponsor these space probes? Pfft. Lease operations to a customer like ‘Elon’ et al.,… perhaps Trump?! ;-) Peddle the data to universities/scholars and the space science dweebs. Let ‘em pay for it for a change. Or perhaps there are no takers to sponsor low to no ROI space probes and no space sciernce folks willing to actually tap their own budgets for data. No more free coffee in the faculty lounge, eh.

    Truncate Cassini. It is a victim of the poor management of Curiosity.

    Saturn has had its day and fair share of probes as it is– and what with the absurdly over priced costs of Curiosity, the U.S. is more or less committed to drive the gold-plated dust buggy into the ground to at least try to get some kind of ROI from the thing. There’s a probe due at Pluto soon– focus on getting a lot of ink out of that; then trumptet the success of the planetary science team visting all the ‘planets’– [okay, Pluto is a now a sub planet–]and a few comets and asteroids over the past fifty years, tally up the costs and pitch the success and the wealth of knowledge gathered there in.

    • Hiram

      “Golly Gee. Oh where oh where are the creative capitalists in the deep pocketed Newspace hobbyist set rushing to rescue and subsidize and/or sponsor these space probes?”

      Well golly gee, if Newspace and their creative and deep-pocketed capitalists can produce a launcher that costs a third what we’ve assumed such launches would cost, that will, in fact, rescue a lot of these space probes which would otherwise be unaffordable. In this respect, NewSpace is likely to be a real savior of space science.

      As to space science folks willing to tap their own budgets for data, that is precisely what SMD is. It’s the national budget for space science folks. I will add that this budget is also good for free coffee, and even maybe some Red Bull. Someone ought to buy the NASA human space flight folks some coffee. The caffeine from forty years ago is getting kinda thin.

  • Egad

    Cassini: See http://www.lpi.usra.edu/pss/nov2013/1_JulieCastillo_opag.pdf , especially slide 4:

    Threat to Cassini’s final years?

    • NASA’s notional budget for the outyears no longer includes funding for Cassini
    in the outer planets line

    • The final three years of the Cassini mission promise entirely new discoveries as
    the orbit of the spacecraft is cranked to high inclination and periapse is
    brought inside the rings. This geometry enables acquisition of new data on
    Saturn’s interior and magnetosphere,
    as well as a new perspective for viewing
    its rings, that continue the Cassini legacy of ground-breaking new scientific
    discoveries in the Saturnian system; equivalent to a New Frontiers class mission
    (Juno)

    OPAG finding: NASA should explicitly show a notional budget for the Cassini
    Solstice Mission in 2015, 2016, and 2017. OPAG asserts that the unique science return from the Cassini end-of-mission observations strongly warrants full funding of the final three years of the mission

  • James

    Astrophysics seems to be in the same boat: short term they have JWST and some operating missions gathering data, but in the long term not much. ESA is leading Dark Energy, notwithstanding WFIRST/NRO Mirror mission (Which had to add an exo-planet choronograph to sell it), Gravity Waves with LISA, and speculation that ESA is going to pick an X Ray mission for launch in 2028.

    Seems planetary and AP mission costs are climbing at a rate that well surpasses inflation, but a budget that isn’t keeping up with inflation. I bet same is true for all of SMD.

    So how does one sustain a science program that has not money to mount anything but little balloons, sounding rockets, small explorers and the like? CAn’t sustain a $5B organization that produces ground breaking results once every 20 years….

    • Hiram

      ” CAn’t sustain a $5B organization that produces ground breaking results once every 20 years….”

      Well, that’s completely unfair. SMD has loads of active missions, and many in development. Those will produce groundbreaking results. That’s precisely why they’re being done. It makes no sense, in the age of LRO, Kepler, NuStar, and Juno, looking forward to MAVEN, MMS and NPOESS (oh, those are “small explorers and the like”??), to thumb one’s nose at an organization that can’t sustain frequent flagship mega-missions.

      But yes, NASA Astrophysics is in a real funk, shoveling money at JWST. It’s a much tippier boat than the other themes. JWST will be enormously successful scientifically, but it has already succeeded in pulling the rug out from under the future of space astrophysics in the U.S. That future has to be measured not by the papers that will be written in the next decade, but by the groundwork that is being laid for what follows. Right now, that groundwork is largely unaffordable, except perhaps for WFIRST. Before the costs for JWST exploded, SMD had a raft of exciting concepts for astrophysics facilities. Those have mostly died. The legacy of JWST will be written not just in its scientific accomplishments, but in the decapitation of a lot of future hopes.

  • Concerned Citizen

    Regarding the extended missions in NASA’s planetary program, the premise that we must choose which one(s) to shut off is wrong. Both of the strategic flagship missions in the discussion above, Curiosity and Cassini, are multi-billion dollar assets that are working perfectly and have the potential for enormous additional discoveries ahead of them. Curiosity will have only just gotten to its prime destination, Mt. Sharp, when it goes into extended operations. With the most sophisticated science payload ever sent to Mars, there is no way that Curiosity can possibly fail to astonish us.

    Cassini has four incredible years ahead of it to (1) observe Saturn and its moons and rings in a season never before seen from such a close vantage point; (2) conduct multiple flybys of two of the most enigmatic and scientifically interesting bodies in the solar system, Titan and Enceladus; and (3) in the final “end game” before plunging into the atmosphere of Saturn, conduct a New Frontiers Juno-like study of the deep interior of Saturn. The final four years of Cassini would require several Discovery missions and at least one New Frontier mission to replicate, the sum total development and launch cost of which would greatly exceed the total cost of the Cassini mission. The Cassini development and launch cost is already behind us and the mission is already there, performing flawlessly.

    No, the question is NOT which one to shut off but rather, how do we as tax payers get the NASA planetary budget restored to enable both to be done. We are talking about a minuscule amount of funding…a mere $60M per year out a total federal discretionary budget that is hundreds of BILLIONS of dollars. This is yet one more example of the collateral damage that will be caused by the Administration’s persistent drive to slash NASA’s planetary budget by an amount that is completely out of proportion with any other element of the NASA program.

    Let us fight the budget cut together, rather than give in to it and fight over which of our beautiful and gifted “children” should be sacrificed.

  • Neil Shipley

    Well you could start with that wasteful pork exercise the Senate Launch System and no Hiram, those jobs aren’t sufficient justification for continuing such a useless program. JM2CW.

    • Hiram

      “Well you could start with that wasteful pork exercise the Senate Launch System and no Hiram, those jobs aren’t sufficient justification for continuing such a useless program.”

      Where did I say I thought they were sufficient justification? Not in my book. My point was that Congress thinks that jobs define a useful program. You could have an army of paid workers digging ditches, and another paid army filling in the ditches, and Congress would lap it up. Of course, since NASA has never really defined what a human space flight program is really for, you’ve got to cut Congress some slack for coming up with their own reason.

      • Neil Shipley

        Yes, absolutely agree with your comment so apologies for misinterpreting your previous comments. Just sounded like jobs were all you thought was important – like Congress.

  • Aberwys

    I don’t see what the fuss is.

    Senior Reviews have always been a part of any mission extension.

    See this old 2005 National Academies description:
    http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=11485&page=8

    • Hiram

      “I don’t see what the fuss is. Senior Reviews have always been a part of any mission extension.”

      That’s exactly right. Senior Reviews are standard procedure for keeping a mission going longer than the planned duration. But what the fuss is about is that funds available for mission extensions are now so tight, many more, and more precious missions will need to get their plugs pulled. In the past, the Senior Reviews have been pretty much just formal tools to terminate aging and less productive missions. That’s probably not the case this time. The “hard choices” are going to be a lot harder to make.

  • Aberwys

    And while that reference is from an Earth Sci-focused publication, the text makes it clear that this is the case for any SMD mission.

    Cassini has been worried about this for a few years now, given the budget situation. I’ve heard them speak at MEPAG and other places about this very concern, starting at least 2 years ago.

  • vulture4

    It seems frustratingly impossible to divert money from SLS to Cassini. But the data Cassini can get between 2014 and 2017 is worth far more than $150M. It isn’t clear why Cassini and Curiosity are so expensive to operate, maybe some cost savings is possible. But the science community needs to get on the horn and convince the public to support these missions even if it taxes one new tax dollar per year per American.

    • reader

      But the science community needs to get on the horn
      Just getting on the horn and tooting “we need moar money” message is going to be pretty useless and drown in an ocean similar pleas. The message is only going to be constructive, if you call out the target where would you cut instead, too. Remaining a Switzerland kind of “neutral power” in the constrained budget fight isn’t really an option.
      So, pick your poison and a new set of enemies : cut JWST, SLS, Earth sciences, Orion, ISS ? Nasaspaceflight ran a poll for the cutting targets, JWST went head to head with SLS ..

  • Curtis Quick

    How ’bout a Kickstarter for missions that have gone past prime? Instead of turning off spacecraft how about asking universities to take them over? Or even philanthropists? After all, the Keck telescope was not called Keck after a famous astronomer. The money does not have to come from NASA. And my guess is that these programs can be re-managed to use far less resources. Perhaps we don’t need to pay salaries for researchers to conduct their research but instead let them find funding from other sources. This sounds harsh but reality requires re-thinking how money is being spent and relying on past ways of doing it just do not serve the purposes as well as they once did. New wine does not go in old wineskins.

  • asBaldwin

    We all have our opinions as to which mission to cut if it came to that . Therefore it must NEVER come to that. NASA is a large state funded organisation testing the waters to see what it can get away with in terms of savings while times are hard. And asking for help ( covertly). The public need to kick up a fuss about any such cuts. In terms of macroeconomics the few tens of millions it costs to keep these missions going is peanuts . If you work for NASA you are hardly going to push back hard against your pay masters , but there is nothing stopping you laying out the bald facts and consequences for those who can push back. Take it from someone who has worked in state funded organisations in the UK for years. That’s how the state funded game works.

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