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.