Congress, NASA

Next NASA Discovery solicitation will miss Congressional deadline

When Congress completed the fiscal year 2014 omnibus spending bill last month, the report accompanying the bill included some specific language regarding NASA’s Discovery program of relatively small planetary science missions. That report directed NASA to issue an announcement of opportunity (AO) for the Discovery program’s next round “no later than May 1, 2014,” and select one or more missions by September 2015. That language was an effort by Congress to encourage NASA to increase the tempo of Discovery-class missions, a topic of concern among planetary scientists.

On Wednesday, NASA issued a synopsis of that planned Discovery solicitation, indicating that it will miss the deadline in the omnibus report by several months. Under NASA’s current plan, it will release a draft version of the AO in May and seek comments from the community. NASA will release the final AO in September, with proposals due 90 days later. NASA will award “Phase A” studies of potential missions—in effect, a selection of finalists—in May 2015, with the final selection to come by October 2016. That will be more than a year after the language in the Congressional report, and more than four years after NASA selected the previous Discovery mission, the InSight Mars lander.

The delay in releasing the AO, though, is not surprising. Shortly after the omnibus spending bill passed last month, Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary sciences division, told a meeting of the Planetary Science Subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council that the schedule in the congressional report wasn’t realistic. He said that releasing the AO so quickly “would catch everyone by surprise.” Instead, he said his office was working on a revised schedule that would release the AO before the end of the fiscal year, which the schedule released Wednesday maintains.

The synopsis contained few surprises about the content and scope of the upcoming solicitation. The missions proposed must fit within a cost cap of $450 million (in 2015 dollars), including a 25% cost reserve; launch vehicle costs, though, are not included in that cap. NASA is also willing to provide some advanced technologies for proposed missions, such as an ion propulsion system and heat shield, and may require the missions to include a laser communications system.

However, proposals cannot include the use of radioisotope power systems, since the fueling of such systems “cannot be met in time for the expected launch window” of these missions, which is no later than the end of 2021. NASA has previously offered an Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator (ASRG), a more efficient version of the radiosiotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) used on other NASA missions, and two of the three finalists for the previous Discovery round planned to use ASRGs. But InSight, the winning mission, is solar powered, and last November NASA stopped plans to procure ASRGs in a money-saving move, since there were no missions on the books to use them.

7 comments to Next NASA Discovery solicitation will miss Congressional deadline

  • amightywind

    A geophysical lander like InSight is ok, but the value of data from one location is limited. The science mission would be better served by using multiple landers and an active seismology experiment. Events like this. Make a global experiment more intriguing. Where are our international partners when you need them?

    Of all of the ‘game changers’ NASA has mouthed off about in recent years, the ASRG had the most merit. No wonder it was dropped.

    • Coastal Ron

      amightywind said:

      …the ASRG had the most merit. No wonder it was dropped.

      Not everything that has no current demand can be funded. Perhaps you’d like to fund ASRG (advanced Stirling radioisotope generator) development with money from another program that has no current demand, like the SLS?

      Siphoning $50M off of the SLS program to fund the development of ASRG would not make a difference at this point since NO ONE has stepped forward to actually use the SLS, but developing the ASRG would allow us to do more missions with the same amount of Pu238. And, since it’s highly unlikely that any ASRG powered mission would need the SLS, so it’s a Win-Win for everyone! ;-)

      • amightywind

        I am not surprised you are not foresighted enough to see the value of ASRG. But consider the program you support that casts it aside. Well, boot-licking was never my style.

        • Coastal Ron

          amightywind said:

          I am not surprised you are not foresighted enough to see the value of ASRG.

          Reread what I wrote – I DO see the value in developing the ASRG, and I DO see the value in taking the money to develop it out of the SLS budget.

          Unfortunately it is you that supports a big program that ensures that we’ll have no need for the small technology development programs like ASRG.

          Apparently boot-licking is your style…

      • Vladislaw

        I agree with you Ron, but let’s not stop with only cutting off one slice of bacon from that pork wagon the SLS, let’s carve that up and fund a lot more technology. Between SLS and Orion we could have some real useful tecb and hardware created.

  • Hiram

    Let’s not forget that “report language”, attached to legislation, isn’t law. So it’s not unreasonable for NASA to say to that report language “sorry, no-can-do”. Now, it is never constructive to disobey congressional guidance, but if Jim Green has good reasons why it can’t be done, that’s a management decision that he’s responsible for. Not clear if the authors of that report language had any real insight into the complexities of such a solicitation.

    I will support the position that ASRGs are remarkable, and highly enabling technology. We need to start flying these things.

  • Mark Rudenstein

    The last Discovery AO evaluation took about 2 years (including the 9 month long Phase A studies) from final AO release to final selection. Unless Congress intended to hamstring a thorough review of all the proposals — which I’m certain was not the intent — the selection date in the appropriation report must have been based on a misunderstanding of the evaluation and selection process. The dates in the synopsis are probably the best possible given the evaluation and selection process.

    BTW, a big driver for the cancellation of the ASRG might have been the $50M/year NASA must use to fund the restarting of Pu-238 production by the DoE. That was non-negotiable, I believe. AFAIK, though, Congress gave NASA the responsibility but did not add any funding.

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