Many in the planetary science community, and space advocates in general, have been dreading the upcoming “Senior Review” later this year of ongoing NASA planetary missions. This biennial process examines those missions that have completed their primary missions to determine which should continue, and at what funding levels. The concern is that the funding available to support those missions is projected to remain flat, while a new large mission—the Mars rover Curiosity, which completes its primary mission later this year—joins the pool of missions competing for that money. That has created the perception of a competition between Curiosity and an existing large flagship mission, the Saturn orbiter Cassini, with only enough money to fund one of those missions.
Last week, a senior NASA official denied that was the case. “That’s inaccurate,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, at a meeting last week of the Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) in Washington when asked about reports that only one of those two flagship missions could be continued. That review will involve some “tough decisions,” he acknowledged, but that does not mean shutting off missions entirely. “I’d rather not do that to any of the planetary missions,” he said. “Some missions may be funded at a higher level than other missions” based on priorities established in the senior review.
Green offered a similar message earlier this week to another group of scientists, the Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG), meeting in Tucson. Other scientific divisions at NASA, notably heliophysics, deals with such reviews by ending some missions entirely, a process Green said he’d like to avoid. “Each and every one of those [planetary] missions may not be funded at the current level that are funded at right now,” he said. “Some may be at a lower level.”
That environment, Green said, means that ongoing missions will need to be creative in figuring out how to continue their missions, or some aspects of them, for less than they’re receiving today. “It’s a very tough environment, so everyone needs to sharpen their pencils and really think about the science that can be accomplished,” he said at OPAG.
The process of the senior review itself is still coming together, with one big uncertainty: how much money will be available for continuing missions. Bill Knopf, lead program executive for mission operations in the planetary sciences division at NASA Headquarters, told OPAG that a “guideline narrative” for the senior review will be released to projects by the end of this month. Those guidelines, though, will not include budget levels, which will wait until the release of the administration’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal, not expected until at least late February. Proposals from the various missions will be due in April, with results announced in June.
“We’re working on not as much information as we’d like to have right now,” Knopf said, referring to the unknown level of the fiscal year 2015 budget. “Hopefully, the President will issue his budget in February.”
Those statements by NASA officials, though, may not be completely reassuring to scientists. The reliance on the FY2015 budget proposal for setting spending levels for the senior review could be problematic, as the administration sought significant cuts in planetary spending in both its FY13 and FY14 budget proposals, cuts partially offset by Congress in the final spending bills for those years. In a statement earlier this week about the final FY14 appropriations bill, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) said he heard “disquieting rumors” about cuts in the planetary science program in the FY15 proposal, including “shutting down some current missions.”
Those involved in Cassini—which continues to be perceived as the mission most in jeopardy during the senior review, given its cost and age—made the case for continuing the mission at OPAG. “Cassini is an investment not to be wasted,” Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist, said in a presentation to OPAG. Flying the mission though its planned end in September 2017 would cost about $180 million, or $60 million a year, and perform science that otherwise could likely not be accomplished for decades. “To waste it would be unthinkable.”
Cassini, some believe, could also be at a disadvantage if asked to continue the mission with reduced funding, since it has already had to tighten its belt during past reviews: Spilker said Cassini’s budget went from $80 million to $60 million a year in the previous senior review in 2012 even though it was considered fully funded. Those kinds of challenges await NASA and ongoing planetary missions this year. “The cold reality,” said Knopf, “is that we have only so much money to go around.”