NASA: upcoming senior review won’t pit Cassini versus Curiosity

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.”

19 comments to NASA: upcoming senior review won’t pit Cassini versus Curiosity

  • amightywind

    I have real problems with the pacing and execution of the Curiosity mission. The tiny distance traveled is inconsistent with the robust capabilities of the rover. It stays parked for weeks at a time while the propeller heads light up their gizmos. Move on! Let’s get to the badlands at the foot of Mt. Sharp before the mission loses funding.

  • Hiram

    Curiosity and Cassini are marvelous solar system explorers, and there is no question that continuing their activity while they are operational would serve science. But the fiscal commitment that was made to these missions was finite, and that commitment was based on science that was prioritized as being especially important to do. That fiscal commitment determines the size of the future wedge that is available to start new missions. So it pretty much comes down to the importance of doing new things. Now, for better or worse, NASA is a technology and engineering agency more than it is a science agency. So those important new things are new technology and new engineering. Of course, that’s new technology and new engineering in the interest of new science. Meeting new technological and engineering challenges is a strategy that is not well served by adding extra goals to older missions just because those goals happen to be achievable.

    Exploration is partly about making decisions about what to explore. If I take a several week trip to the Grand Canyon, in principle there are umpteen destinations that I can add to that trip just because, hey, I’ll be out in the desert southwest anyway. But I have other stuff to do, and a finite travel budget. Those additional destinations would turn it into a several month trip. Yes, it seems like a waste, not expanding my trip to take advantage of all the other opportunities, but that’s life.

    So it’s just not about what I could do, if I extend the mission beyond the planned lifetime, but also about what I won’t do if I do that. That’s a trade that has to be considered carefully.

  • Dark Blue Nine

    SLS/MPCV blows $250 million _per month_, not including civil servant salaries and NASA overhead. That would double the annual budget available for these operating missions.

    Stupid, stupid, stupid.

    • amightywind

      ISS blows the same amount. After 14 years, what has it gotten us? What will it get us to justify the $250 million a month? SLS will get us back to the moon and asteroids.

      • Coastal Ron

        amightywind said:

        ISS blows the same amount. After 14 years, what has it gotten us?

        Considering that the ISS was only finished (i.e. construction complete) less than three years ago, it’s actually doing pretty good. If you bothered to look at all, there are plenty of articles talking about the ISS has done – apparently you are just ignorant of them. I quickly found these two:

        Scientific research on the International Space Station – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

        The International Space Station’s scientific payoff is real. And increasing.

        Even before the ISS was complete it was producing results, which the SLS fans cannot say about the SLS. The only thing that we know about the SLS today is how much it is costing us, and that no one has stepped forward to use it. The ISS has lots of users.

        Something else you apparently don’t realize – the SLS won’t have anything to launch unless the ISS is successful in figuring out how humans are to survive and potentially thrive in space.

        SLS will get us back to the moon and asteroids.

        So can Delta IV Heavy, and many other available launchers today. If we used the $30B+ that we’re wasting on the SLS to build payloads that will fit on existing launchers, we would be back to the Moon and the asteroids far quicker and for far less money.

        Funny how you can’t understand that…

        • Vladislaw

          Windasovich only understands Stalinist big government solutions. Capitalism and market mechanics are foreign to him. Croney capitalism to the usual suspects and no launches .. but what is the mantra? Obviously NASA needs more money in the troughs.

      • Dark Blue Nine

        “After 14 years, what has it gotten us? What will it get us to justify the $250 million a month?”

        To start, treatments for cancer, muscular dystrophy, Hepatitis-C, salmonella, and osteoporosis:

        When was the last time SLS or MPCV cured a disease?

        “SLS will get us back to the moon and asteroids.”

        No, it won’t. Transfer stages, larger deep space habitation volumes, landers, and proximity vehicles are what enable lunar and NEO exploration by humans, not launch vehicles. SLS isn’t necessary to launch any of these systems, and its costs are preventing us from getting them developed.

    • Hiram

      “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”

      Yep, but let’s move on. The SMD budget is pretty much fixed, and even if $250M/month were handed to SMD from HEOMD, which is hugely unlikely, scientists would *still* be grinding their teeth about funding mission extensions. Why, DoD is grossly overbudgeted, so why not kill the F-35 program, and throw a few tens of $B out of that at Cassini?

      • common sense

        “Why, DoD is grossly overbudgeted, so why not kill the F-35 program, and throw a few tens of $B out of that at Cassini?”

        As you know first you just cannot transfer mopey out of DoD to NASA – just in case. Second F-35 probably is not the worst waste in the DoD portfolio. There is a need to renew the fleet of naval airplanes with advanced capabilities (stealth, STOVL, etc).

        The reason why DoD is “grossly over budgeted” is the exact same why we have SLS/MPCV: It is a jobs program. Worse the program spreads all over the US. Worse even it is built on the paranoia that we need to protect ourselves from absolutely everyone in this world. It is not even flexible enough to move from Cold War threats to “new” terrorists/guerrilla threats/operations.

        But for Congress it is easier to point to a couple of stealthy Chinese aircraft and cry Wolf (if I may). Then we go on and build a test stand for no good reason. Could be worse. Could be a monster rocket to nowhere. No wait.

        • Hiram

          “As you know first you just cannot transfer mopey out of DoD to NASA – just in case.”

          Excuse me? It is by all means within the power of Congress to reduce the DoD budget and increase the NASA budget. I’m not talking about a “transfer” where the Air Force writes a check to NASA. It’s a bit of a challenge, since they are in separate budget accounts, and so such rebudgeting is a matter of the Budget Committee more than the Appropriations committees.

          Now, that being said, fiscal intertia is such that it’s not gonna happen. But don’t preach about jobs. NASA contractors are largely also DoD contractors. So there will be the same number of aerospace jobs.

      • Dark Blue Nine

        “even if $250M/month were handed to SMD from HEOMD”

        I never stated that SMD should get $250M per month (from anyone). I argued that one lousy month of SLS/MPCV spending could pay for an _entire year_ of planetary mission operations. Let’s defer SLS/MPCV by a few weeks and pay the bills we should be paying for the missions doing actual solar system exploration today.

  • James


    I agree totally! All rational logic suggests SLS/MPVC is a big waste of money and makes no sense given what is emerging with Commercial Crew and Cargo, and what is not emerging elsewhere: $ for any kind of SLS mission! $ either from Human Exploration or Science Mission Directorates.

    I”m sure that if 60 minutes did an expose’ on this Rocket to Nowhere, there might be more of an uproar from those that want that $ spent on social programs.

    If it were cancelled, it would be the result from the outcry on non NASA constituents. In which case, the $ would not be spent on other NASA interests.

    So, is it better to waste it on a Rocket? Or Social Programs?

    And all Congress cares about is “votes in my districts!” So, I don’t expect it to ever get cancelled, as that would make too much sense.

    Democracy doesn’t seem to be working very well.

  • BuzzFan

    I just can’t fathom how operational costs are so high to operate these missions. It’s not like we are servicing or refueling these missions. So what the heck do we spend 60-80 million a year on Cassini and others? Sure there is overhead for staff to operate and interpret Cassini’s info beamed back? Just seems terribly inefficient. I’m sure I’m being ignorant and overlooking something, so feel free to set me straight… I have to agree with Hiram that saving money for new missions should be primary goal, even at the cost of shutting down old operational spacecraft. Though I also would like to see more missions in general, even at the expense of larger ones. Get rid of Mars2020 and build 4-6 discovery class missions.

    • Coastal Ron

      BuzzFan said:

      I just can’t fathom how operational costs are so high to operate these missions. It’s not like we are servicing or refueling these missions. So what the heck do we spend 60-80 million a year on Cassini and others?

      I don’t know, but it would be interesting to see a breakdown of their budgets.

      However one thing that I suspect is a high cost driver is the communications network, which without it the missions are useless. Maintaining the network of dishes around the world (or wherever) is not cheap, nor are the salaries of the engineers that keep them going around the world. Then you add in the scientists that are interpreting the data, and the labs that are used in conjunction with the missions… maybe $60-80M is believable.

    • Hiram

      “So what the heck do we spend 60-80 million a year on Cassini and others?”

      Operations team, DSN telemetry, spacecraft engineering team, tracking & orbital dynamics teams, science instrument teams (12), scientific research (about 200 international scientists), some EPO. Fully burdened, $60-80M is about 300 U.S. people. Of course, ESA and ASI have a share of the Cassini budget, but that fraction is pretty small.

      Flagship missions ain’t cheap, mainly because they do a LOT. For a mission that costs the U.S. $2.6B, $60-80M/yr is pretty cheap.

      The HST budget is similar, and no, we don’t do servicing on it anymore.

      As to shutting down old spacecraft, you don’t shut them down because they’re old, but you shut them down because they’ve answered the questions that they set out to answer. These are questions that are well understood when the mission is developed. The whole purpose of the mission was to answer them. New questions may arise, but it’s a matter of careful prioritization to decide whether those new questions should justify keeping the mission running.

      • Vladislaw

        One thing I seem to notice is that pretty much all probes seem to outlive their life expectancy. The mars rovers were supposed to last 90 days is just one example. That creates a whole bunch of probes still returning science past the due date and automatically creates a drain on future mission funding. I thought I read there is 16 missions currently running past their proposed end date that are still being funded?

        Do they overbuild or undersell the capabilities?

        • Hiram

          “One thing I seem to notice is that pretty much all probes seem to outlive their life expectancy.”

          Be careful about your definitions here. What all probes seem to outlive is their “prime mission”. That’s the mission duration that is necessary to answer the questions the mission set out to answer. It would be pretty stupid to design missions to “live” for just that length of time. So they are designed to live with a low probability of failure during the prime mission, and they have reserve expendables to confidently get them through the prime mission.

          That being the case, one has every expectation that probes will live way beyond their prime mission!

          A Senior Review is held to decide if the mission should be operated beyond its “prime mission”. As in, whether the mission should be continued after the design goals are completed. In some cases, where the mission is designed to serve a continuing need, the Senior Review can establish whether, in fact, it still meets that need or whether the need still exists.

        • Hiram

          P.S. If you want to know exactly what a SMD Senior Review is, go to the source. See Section 5.10.1 of the SMD Management Handbook. I’m pretty sure it’s online. Just Google it.

      • E.P. Grondine

        Hi Hiram –

        You mean there was funding included for 200 researchers here on Earth to work with the WISE NEO data?

        Gosh gee, I really love this stuff.

        Someday someone is going to be real surprised when they find out in an unimstakable way what “important research” and “significant science” really are.

        Perhaps some brave reporter will actually bother to dig NASA’s NEO detection budget out of the bill, whenever it is finally passed, and share that with his readers.

        If he is real brave, he will report it in terms of the entire NASA budget, or compare it with the budgets for other NASA science programs.

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