NASA: funding of some extended planetary missions depends on additional funding

Full funding of all of NASA’s current planetary science missions is dependent on receiving money above what’s in the baseline request for the agency in fiscal year 2015, a NASA official said Monday.

Speaking at the “NASA Night” town hall meeting at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) in suburban Houston, Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, attempted to explain what was, to many in the room, a puzzling aspect of the detailed FY2015 budget proposal: no funding for the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Opportunity and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) programs in 2015 or beyond. Some had worried that NASA was making a decision on the future of those programs even before a planned “senior review” of those and other extended missions that will take place this spring.

That, said Green, was not the intent of the budget, but instead reflects the fact that funding for extended missions is split between the baseline budget proposal and the additional $885 million requested as part of the administration’s Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative (OGSI); $35 million of that OGSI funding would be used for planetary science mission extended funding. “The President provides a budget for which all our operating missions are covered,” he said. “They’re covered in the two parts of the budget.”

Specifically, he said, LRO and Opportunity would be covered by that $35 million in OGSI funding. “I had an opportunity to grab $35 million for extended mission funding, and balance a budget, create a budget that we can basically execute on and not have any of our balls dropped,” Green said. “When you add LRO and Opportunity, that’s about $35 million.” (Although, according to the FY13 actual expenditures included in NASA’s FY15 budget request, LRO, at $8.1 million, and MER, at $13.2 million, fall well short of $35 million.)

The administration’s overall OGSI proposal has not gotten a warm reception on Capitol Hill, particularly in the House. Green said, though, that funding for LRO and Opportunity was not specifically tied to OGSI: they could still have their extended missions funded if NASA receives only its baseline budget, depending on how well they do in the senior review. “If LRO is on top, or Opportunity is on top, they will be funded,” he said, referring to the ranking of missions that will come out of the senior review. “We’ll reprogram as necessary to be able cover these missions.”

“I’d love to have the community not worry so much about where the money is and how much they’re going to get,” Green said later, “because they need to write a proposal to get it.”

Green also discussed planning for a Europa mission. Earlier this month, NASA associate administrator for science John Grunsfeld said NASA would issue in the near future a request for information (RFI) for Europa mission concepts that cost $1 billion or less, or about half of the estimated cost of Europa Clipper, a proposal under current study by NASA. At LPSC, Green said the RFI was coming soon, but did not provide a date. “That’s a phase space that perhaps we haven’t significantly looked at, and we owe it to ourselves to be able to determine if there are any viable missions at a billion dollars or less,” he said.

However, Green sounded a little skeptical that a Europa mission that was scientifically worthwhile could be done that inexpensively. “We owe it to the administration to do that last check,” he said of the RFI, citing advances in technology. “Maybe, just maybe, there’s a way to do the preponderance of the planetary decadal science objectives for less than a billion dollars. That’s important to check, and after we see what the responses are and evaluate those, we will then chart a course to execute the program accordingly.”

Green emphasized that any mission to Europa has to be able to do a “preponderance” of the science goals laid out in the 2012 decadal report. NASA will continue to refine the Europa Clipper concept in the meantime, he said, as well as prepare the release of an announcement of opportunity for risk reduction work on instruments, which will not go out until after the RFI responses are evaluated.

7 comments to NASA: funding of some extended planetary missions depends on additional funding

  • Andrew Swallow

    The House is up for election in the Fall and 1/3 the Senate. Many politicians will want more more for their constituencies, so NASA may get extra money.

    How will this extra money:
    a. reduce unemployment?
    b. help the country recover from the long depression?
    c. safeguard the country or the ISS or the replacement space station?
    d. raise morale?
    e. provide software by improving the country’s reputation?

  • Hiram

    “Many politicians will want more more for their constituencies, so NASA may get extra money.”

    … and you think a good way for them to get money to their constituents is through NASA?? Um, guess why NASA budgets have not been rising fast, and even decreasing as a fraction of the total federal budget for the last two decades. Politicians know that’s not how to please your constituents, unless you happen to live in a few special districts. It’s also pretty clear from NASA budgets that investment in NASA hasn’t been considered a way to reduce unemployment or recover from the recession. Were that the case, the NASA budget would be flying high. Besides, considering this thread, the constituency for planetary science missions is pretty small. Not much of a voting block there.

    Might add to your questions. How well would this money … f. reduce the national debt, g. build 21st century infrastructure for the populace, and h. equip Americans with high quality education and skills they need. Those, as well as reducing unemployment, are established national needs.

    BTW, shoving a few more billion dollars into NASA will improve morale among space enthusiasts, but it’s not clear what it will do for everyone else. Improving morale for space enthusiasts is decidedly not a national priority.

    “Provide software by improving the country’s reputation”? Whatever does that mean? You mean, if we’re admired, other countries will share their spying software with us? Or maybe their wool coats.

    Historically, there is little correlation of NASA budgets with election years.

  • James

    Grunsfeld, speaking of a $1B Europa mission: “Maybe, just maybe, there‚Äôs a way to do the preponderance of the planetary decadal science objectives for less than a billion dollars

    No there isn’t. Come on Dr. G….you are smarter than this.

  • vulture4

    The chance of addiional funding is poor. We have to jettison something. preferably something big, and useless. No, I don’t mean ISS, or NASA HQ.

  • Curtis Quick

    I predict that if Sens Shelby and Brooks get their way and are able to use the Crimean crisis to fool Congress into more funding for SLS then funding for NASA science missions will all but dry up. SLS is the great destroyer of NASA exploration and ender of American human spaceflight programs. On the other hand, it is a great jobs program for Alabama!

  • seamus

    Additional funding for all of NASA is essential. Accelerate SLS, boost Commercial Crew, advance planetary science. Invest in terrestrial and space infrastructure and get the economy going.

    Republicans in Congress are more interested in playing politics than in real-world solutions.

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