NASA FY 2015 budget supports asteroids, Europa, and commercial crew, but sacrifices SOFIA

First, let’s set the table (figuratively and literally) for NASA’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal:

Account FY14 Omnibus FY15 PBR FY15 PBR + OGSI
SCIENCE $5,151.2 $4,972.0 $5,159.3
- Earth Science $1,826.0 $1,770.3
- Planetary Science $1,345.0 $1,280.3
- Astrophysics $668.0 $607.3
- JWST $658.2 $645.4
- Heliophysics $654.0 $668.9
SPACE TECHNOLOGY $576.0 $705.5 $805.5
AERONAUTICS $566.0 $551.1 $595.0
EXPLORATION SYSTEMS $4,113.2 $3,976.0 $4,326.0
- SLS/Orion $3,115.2 $2,784.4
- Commercial Spaceflight $696.0 $848.3
- Exploration R&D $302.0 $343.4
SPACE OPERATIONS $3,778.0 $3,905.4 $4,006.0
- ISS n/a $3,050.8
- Space and Flight Support n/a $854.6
EDUCATION $116.6 $88.9 $98.9
CROSS AGENCY SUPPORT $2,793.0 $2,778.6 $2,778.6
CONSTRUCTION $515.0 $446.1 $539.8
INSPECTOR GENERAL $37.5 $37.0 $37.0
TOTAL $17,646.5 $17,460.6 $18,346.1

While not that different from 2014, the president’s budget request (PBR), both for NASA and the overall federal government, has one curveball in it: besides the baseline funding requests, the budget proposal also includes a supplementary funding line, called the Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative (OGSI). This additional $56 billion in spending, split evenly between defense and non-defense programs, would be paid for through “common-sense spending reforms” and reducing tax benefits of very large retirement accounts. For NASA, OGSI would provide $885.5 million in additional spending on top of the baseline $17.46 billion request, spread across most agency accounts.

Arguably the biggest surprise in the budget proposal involved a relatively small program. The budget proposal would effectively end funding for NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a 747 aircraft with a 2.5-meter telescope capable of doing infrared astronomy at altitudes above much of the infrared-absorbing constituents of the atmosphere. After a long, and sometimes troubled, development, SOFIA is just now entering routine operations, with a planned 20-year lifetime. NASA pays about 80 percent of SOFIA’s cost, at an annual budget of about $85 million, with the German space agency DLR paying the remainder.

“SOFIA has earned its way, it has done very well, but I had to make a choice, and that choice was that we would focus on those other efforts” in NASA’s science programs, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in a media teleconference Tuesday afternoon about the budget. He said NASA would work with DLR and others “to find a way to get as much science as we can in the remaining parts of 2014 and then come up with a go-forward plan for 2015.” If NASA can’t get DLR or other partners to pay for NASA’s current share of mission operations, the airplane will be placed in storage in FY15.

Speaking at a meeting of the Space Studies Board immediately after the release of the FY15 budget proposal Tuesday afternoon, Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, said that SOFIA was the victim of an astrophysics budget that dropped sharply in the proposal versus 2014: from $668 million to $607 million. “Within that reduced budget, SOFIA doesn’t fit any more,” he said. NASA informed DLR of its plans prior to the release of the budget, he said, and the two agencies have agreed to establish a working group to study options for the telescope. Hertz later said he was skeptical that the telescope’s current operating costs could be reduced much, given that much of the overhead is in the form of jet fuel and costs to operate the aircraft safely that don’t offer much flexibility.

The news was somewhat better elsewhere in the agency. Advocates of a mission to Europa got a bit of good news with word that the budget includes a small amount of funding to support “pre-formulation” activities for such a mission, after Congress had specifically earmarked funding for Europa mission development in the final FY13 and FY14 appropriations bills. However, the requested amount is small: $15 million, versus the $80 million Congress appropriated for it in 2014. NASA officials were also vague about exactly what this mission would be and how much it would cost, even though the agency has been studying a “Europa Clipper” mission concept. “We’re frankly just not sure at this point” how big and expensive a mission that might be, NASA CFO Beth Robinson said, expecting such a mission would be ready for launch some time around the mid-2020s.

The funding requested for commercial crew, $848 million, is more than the $696 million it’s set to receive in 2014, but is not that much more than the FY14 request of $821 million. However, NASA’s plans for OGSI would give the program an additional $250 million. Robinson said she couldn’t discuss many details about the use of that funding since the agency is still in a “blackout period” while evaluating proposals for the next round of the program, with a decision not planned until late August. “We can say we’re confident the $848 [million] will allow us to maintain competition in this program,” she said. The additional OGSI funding, she said, “is important to have even more robust competition and to buy down risk.”

The budget also includes $133 million for NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) plans, up from $78 million in FY14; the difference is increased funding for solar electric propulsion (SEP) work in the space technology program. That work will also support a Mission Concept Review in early winter of 2015, which Robinson said will be used to “downselect to the key architecture for that mission.”

Bolden, perhaps indirectly responding to last week’s criticism of NASA’s long-term human spaceflight plans, emphasized that the asteroid mission was a key part of a “stepping stone approach” for human missions that eventually will send humans to Mars. “In order to carry out these pioneering missions, we have to develop technologies with the Asteroid Redirect Mission that will lead to subsequent first crewed missions to Mars,” he said in his opening remarks. Later, in response to a question about ARM funding, Bolden said, “The Asteroid Redirect Mission is one step on the pathway to Mars. It is a very critical step: it gives up the opportunity to demonstrate many technologies, such as high-power SEP, that will be needed as we proceed on to Mars.”

What to look for on budget day

Today’s the day the Obama Administration releases its fiscal year 2015 budget proposal. The Office of Management and Budget will release the overall budget documents likely by mid-morning, and NASA will release its detailed budget proposal at 1 pm EST in advance of a 2 pm briefing. (That briefing was originally, and curiously, slated to take place at the Goddard Space Flight Center rather than NASA Headquarters, but late yesterday the agency decided to do the briefing as a teleconference, citing winter weather that closed government offices on Monday and delayed opening this morning.)

The attention, of course, will be on NASA’s overall budget numbers, but it’s worth following a few other issues in the budget:

NASA’s asteroid initiative: NASA used the fiscal year 2014 budget rollout to unveil its asteroid initiative, including plans for a mission to redirect a small asteroid into cislunar space to be visited by astronauts on an Orion mission. That proposed mission has faced pushback from some in Congress, as recently as last week, who are skeptical of the utility of such a mission. NASA hasn’t shown signs of backing away from the mission, announcing plans last week for another forum about its asteroid initiative for late March, but it will be worth watching how many details about those mission plans, and their prominence, they receive in the budget rollout today.

Planetary funding and a Europa mission: NASA’s planetary science program has been a yo-yo the last two budget cycles: the administration has proposed significant cuts in the program, only to have those cuts at least partially restored by Congress. Will NASA again seek a lower (about $1.2 billion) level for planetary science? Also, in FY2013 and 2014, Congress earmarked funding for a Europa mission that NASA did not request. Aviation Week reported that the FY15 budget proposal will including funding for a Europa mission for the first time.

Commercial Crew funding and schedule: The same Aviation Week article said that NASA’s Commercial Crew program would be proposed funding “at a level permitting certification by 2017.” It will be worth seeing if NASA drops any hints on whether it thinks it will be able to support one or two companies through that process, and if two, whether they will be full contracts or a “leader-follower” arrangement where one company gets a full-sized contract and the other a smaller contract.

12 pm EST update: the OMB’s budget documents are out, including a summary of NASA, funding the agency overall at $17.5 billion. One small surprise: the budget sharply reduces funding for the SOFIA airborne observatory, from $84 million in FY2014 to a requested $12 million in FY15, “in order to fund higher priority science missions.” What those higher priority missions include isn’t spelled out, but the document does seem to indicate that an extension of the Cassini mission is included in the proposal.

In JSC’s district, space is a minor issue for GOP congressional candidates

On Tuesday, voters go to the polls in Texas for party primaries. Among the more interesting races will be the Republican nomination for the state’s 36th congressional district, which is up for grabs after the district’s current representative, Steve Stockman, decided to run against incumbent Sen. John Cornyn in the Republican Senate primary. The 36th district includes, near its southwestern borders, NASA’s Johnson Space Center, so it’s one of the few districts where space policy can be a campaign issue.

However, while the race for the GOP nomination has attracted a dozen candidates, only about half have devoted much attention to space policy, based on the issues sections of their campaign websites, and those who have don’t go into much detail. A review of those who do discuss it:

John Amdur says he is “committed to exploration” on his website, including getting more people into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. “The crown jewel of the U.S. Space Program, JSC has been left to atrophy by indecision and utter lack of leadership in Washington,” he writes. “President Obama needs to stop sidestepping the issue and find a meaningful vision that will support the Space Center that has supported every single American to go into space; when I am in Washington, I will be the loud voice needed for CD-36’s place at the center of Space Exploration and the STEM fields.”

Doug Centilli doesn’t mention space on his issues page, but his website does include an endorsement from Doug Morrell, who was NASA chief of staff when Mike Griffin was administrator. “People who believe in the importance of America’s space program, and the role that the Johnson Space Center plays in human flight, need Doug Centilli in Congress,” Morell states. “Doug has the experience and track record to effectively fight for a strong, visionary and well funded space program.”

John Manlove says we must ensure that “we have continued excellence for our space capabilities” on the issues section of his site. “As your next Congressman, I will work vigorously to support NASA, protect it from any reduction of funding, and to strengthen our leadership in space exploration to ensure our national security and foreign policy objectives are met.” Manlove also won the endorsement of the Houston Chronicle in January in part because he “seeks a new, long-term vision for NASA.”

Kim Morrell only tangentially mentions space when, as a bullet point on the topic of “Military Readiness,” states: “Regain our military superiority in the air, outer space and on the ground.”

Dave Norman is the one candidate with an entire issues page devoted to space, with a similar theme of regaining leadership in space. “Unfortunately, President Obama is content to watch our space program fade away, sacrificed on the altar of an ambitious social agenda,” he writes. “Dave will work to restore our space program and technological leadership in the world through both reinvigorated NASA manned space exploration and with a NASA partnership with commercial space enterprises.”

Robin Riley worked nearly 20 years as a JSC contractor, so, not surprisingly, he has views on “Protecting NASA.” “I strongly encourage the federal government and NASA to work with American citizens and American businesses to research and develop a new vehicle to continue human space flight and maintain American’s leadership in space exploration,” he writes, not explaining whether this “new vehicle” would be different from the Orion vehicle NASA is developing or commercial crew systems also under development.

The rest of the Republican candidates—Brian Babin, Jim Engstrand, Phil Fitzgerald, Pat Kasprzak, Chuck Meyer, and Ben Streusand—don’t discuss space on their campaign sites. (In 2012, Meyer, who also ran for and lost the GOP nomination for the district, proposed a special kind of savings bond called “Space Bonds” to fund human spaceflight.)

With a field this large, the race for the nomination will likely go to a runoff election in late May. The eventual winner of the nomination, though, is likely to win the general election in November. In 2012, Stockman won the district with 70 percent of the vote. While a dozen Republicans are seeking their party’s nomination, only one Democrat is running in the district: Michael Cole, who ran in 2012 as a Libertarian. He also does not discuss space policy among the issues on his site. (A reader does note, though, that Cole does have a blog post about NASA on his campaign website, although not as part of his issues page.)

At hearing, some argue Mars flyby mission can provide direction for NASA human spaceflight program

Dissatisfied with NASA’s current asteroid mission plans, and seeking a more detailed framework to support eventual human missions to Mars, some members of the House Science Committee used a hearing Thursday to press the administration to support a once-private proposal for a Mars flyby mission.

“While consensus on Capitol Hill might be hard to find, there is general agreement that the President’s asteroid retrieval mission inspires neither the scientific community nor the public who would foot the bill,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the committee, in his opening statement. He supported the idea of a Mars flyby mission. “NASA, the White House, and Congress should consider this Mars flyby mission proposal.”

The proposal is a variant of the Inspiration Mars mission concept unveiled exactly one year earlier by a team lead by multimillionaire Dennis Tito, the first space tourist to visit the ISS. At that time, a privately-funded mission would launch in early 2018, flying by Mars later that year before returning to Earth 501 days after launch. The 2021 version, as described by Doug Cooke, former NASA associate administrator for exploration systems who has served on Inspiration Mars’s advisory board, would launch in November 2021. The mission features a flyby of Venus in April 2022 and a flyby of Mars in October of that year before returning to Earth in June 2023.

The hearing, though, offered few other technical details about the mission concept, beyond its use of the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket and the Orion spacecraft. As mentioned in a November hearing, the SLS would require a new upper stage that NASA currently doesn’t plan to develop until well into the 2020s; the mission would also require a habitation module of some kind as well. Cooke, asked at the hearing about how much this mission would cost, deferred to NASA. “I think that question should be asked of NASA, to go look at this mission seriously,” he said. “To my knowledge, there’s not been a cost analysis of this.”

Cooke and another witness, Scott Pace of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, argued that the 2021 Mars flyby mission could be part of a broader framework of exploration missions. Pace said that there was a growing international consensus that the next step for human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit was cislunar space. Yet a Mars flyby mission, he argued, “serves as an interesting bridge, a potential bridge, between where we are with the ISS and where we would like to be with Mars and where our international partners and commercial opportunities are with human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit.” The firm deadline of a 2021 mission, dictated by orbital mechanics, would drive decisions “on how to rationally trade cost, schedule, risk, and performance.”

Some other witnesses, though, raised concerns about the mission concept. “In my opinion, the Inspiration Mars proposal provides, I think, an exciting opportunity for our space exploration and certainly for NASA,” said retired Air Force Gen. Lester Lyles. But, he added, “it does have high risk associated with it.” AIAA executive director Sandy Magnus, a former astronaut, said she didn’t doubt there would be astronauts willing to fly such a mission, but they would ask many questions about it, including life support, radiation, and other issues. “What am I going to do during the mission itself?” she asked. “If you are sending two people to Mars on a flyby they’re going to need to occupy their time.”

While Smith and other members expressed interest in the mission, that support wasn’t universal. Committee vice-chairman Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) said he initially supported the Inspiration Mars concept when it was privately funded, but his mind had changed when it turned into something that required public funding. “I think this is a foolhardy use of very limited government resources,” he said.

The committee’s ranking member, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), also questioned whether the mission was suitable for the first crewed SLS/Orion mission, saying it was “unfortunate” that no current NASA officials were invited to testify. She noted that the title of the hearing was a question: “Mars Flyby 2021: The First Deep Space Mission for the Orion and Space Launch System?” “I would guess that the likely answer will turn out to be ‘no,’” she said in her opening remarks. However, she added that NASA needs to provide more details on the steps it plans to take to reach the long-term goal of a human landing on Mars.

After the hearing, Reps. Smith and Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, sent a joint letter to NASA administrator Charles Bolden. In the letter, they state that “it is time for NASA to begin to develop a clear, well-planned technical implementation plan for the future of human spaceflight over the next few months.” Part of that assessment, they argues, should include both the 2018 and 2021 Mars flyby opportunities. The overall study, they added, “should be independent of the Administration’s budget projections and instead based on what NASA believes such systems could be developed.”

Inspiration Mars’s Dennis Tito weighed in on the hearing in a statement Thursday afternoon, saying he was “very encouraged” by the discussion. “I continue to believe, as do many Americans, that Mars is the logical destination to put human space exploration back on track and demonstrate the ‘can do’ spirit that seems to have faded over time,” he said. “The window of opportunity in 2021 is challenging but achievable and waiting to be claimed.”

NASA IG finds no evidence of intentional export control violations at Ames

Officials at NASA’s Ames Research Center did not intentionally violate export control laws but “exercised poor judgment” in sharing ITAR-restricted information with foreign nationals at the center, NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) concluded in a report summary published Wednesday.

The investigation stemmed from complaints that foreign nationals working at Ames had access to information that should have been restricted under export control regulations. The OIG’s investigation continued after the US Attorney’s office closed its criminal investigation a year ago without filing any charges. The OIG’s investigation wrapped up earlier this month with a full report (not publicly released “because it contains information protected by the Privacy Act of 1974,” the summary notes) to the NASA administrator.

The OIG, like the earlier criminal probe, found no evidence of intentional wrongdoing by any Ames officials, but did identify some carelessness in how they treated access to ITAR-restricted information. “In sum, we did not find intentional misconduct by any Ames civil servants,” the OIG summary states, “but believe some Ames managers exercised poor judgment in their dealings with foreign nationals who worked on Center.”

The report summary adds that there was “significant disagreement between scientists and engineers at Ames and export control personnel at the Center and NASA Headquarters as to whether the work the foreign nationals were performing at Ames involved ITAR-controlled technology,” which contributed to the issue. “We concluded that these incidents resulted more from carelessness and a genuine disagreement about whether the information qualified for ITAR protection than an intentional effort to bypass ITAR restrictions.”

In a letter, NASA administrator Charles Bolden accepted the OIG’s report. “I take these findings seriously and have asked Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot to assess your findings and recommend any potential corrective actions to address the concerns raised in your report,” Bolden wrote.

The OIG report comes two weeks after the completion of an independent report on “NASA’s Foreign National Access Management,” triggered by the Ames incidents as well as the arrest of a Chinese national working at NASA Langley who was originally believed to have tried to transfer restricted information. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) claimed that report indicated a “persistent organizational culture” that failed to hold NASA employees responsible for security violations.

While the OIG report found no evidence of intentional efforts at Ames to subvert export control regulations, one key member of Congress still expressed concern about the agency’s security practices. “The casual treatment of foreign national access, ITAR, and export controls at Ames Research Center is simply another example of NASA’s negligence,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science Committee, in a statement provided by the committee. “Several such incidents and reports portray an agency struggling to manage sensitive technical information. I hope that the administration will take these reports seriously and implement the recommended changes to ensure that NASA is not leaking our nation’s prized aerospace technology.”

Senate appropriators to hear from SpaceX and ULA on military space launch issues

The Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee (SAC-D) has scheduled a hearing next week on “National Security Space Launch Programs” featuring the top executives of two key companies. The hearing, scheduled for 10 am Wednesday, March 5, will include as witnesses United Launch Alliance (ULA) CEO Michael Gass and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, along with Christina Chaplin of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and Scott Pace, director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute.

The hearing comes as there’s increased pressure on the DOD to reduce launch costs. The Air Force recently reached a deal with ULA on a “block buy” of 36 rocket cores for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehcle (EELV) program, which currently includes only ULA’s Atlas V and Delta IV rockets. The block buy promises to save billions of dollars, although some are skeptical of that accounting.

SpaceX, meanwhile, is seeking to win business from the EELV program with its Falcon 9 and upcoming Falcon Heavy rockets, which offer much lower prices than Atlas and Delta vehicles. Earlier this week, the Air Force announced that SpaceX’s inaugural Falcon 9 v1.1 launch last September will count towards its EELV certification, despite a problem with the relight of the rocket’s second stage after it released all its satellite payloads. The Air Force is still assessing the following two Falcon 9 v1.1 launches, which took place in December and January, but both of those appeared to take place without incident. Those launches, plus other reviews, will allow the Air Force to certify the Falcon 9 v1.1 for EELV-class launches.

House Science Committee plans hearing on “Mars Flyby 2021” SLS/Orion mission concept

[Update 2/26 12pm: The House Science Committee has posted the charter for the hearing, and it confirms some of the speculation that this would be a discussion of a crewed mission to fly by both Mars and Venus: “This hearing will explore the need for a roadmap of missions to guide investments in NASA's human spaceflight programs, how a manned mission to flyby the planets Mars and Venus launching in 2021 might fit into a series of missions and how the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle could contribute to that mission.”]

The House Science Committee has announced plans for a hearing at 10 am Thursday, February 27th of the full committee with an intriguing title: “Mars Flyby 2021: The First Deep Space Mission for the Orion and Space Launch System?” The only details provided so far is the list of witnesses, which includes some familiar names:

  • Dr. Scott Pace, Director of the Space Policy Institute, George Washington University
  • General Lester Lyles (ret.), Independent Aerospace Consultant and former Chairman of the Committee on “Rationale and Goals of the U.S. Civil Space Program” established by the National Academies
  • Mr. Doug Cooke, Owner, Cooke Concepts and Solutions and former NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Mission Directorate
  • Dr. Sandra Magnus, Executive Director, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

Exactly what this mission concept is, and whether it would include a crew, are unclear. Last November, at another hearing of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, Dennis Tito pitched members on using SLS and Orion as part of a revised mission architecture for his Inspiration Mars mission concept, which would send a married couple on a Mars flyby mission. At that hearing, he said there was a backup mission architecture that could launch in late 2021; it would take 88 days longer than the 501-day mission in the 2018 plan, but would feature flybys of both Mars and Venus.

An individual familiar with Inspiration Mars’s activities said earlier this month that the organization was now focused on studying that 2021 mission opportunity. It’s unclear, though, if that is the same mission concept the House Science Committee will consider in Thursday’s hearing. None of the four witnesses are known to be affiliated with Inspiration Mars. (Update: a reader notes that Doug Cooke is listed as a member of the “IM Advisory Board” in the Inspiration Mars architecture report released in November.)

Also, Rep. Steve Stockman (R-TX), a member of the committee, posted a note to his Facebook page about the hearing, saying that the committee would “hold a hearing on an exciting mission to send Americans to flyby both Mars and Venus in 2021.” If correct, that sounds very much like the alternative mission architecture Tito mentioned in November.mission architecture Tito mentioned in November.

Briefs: NM spaceport legislation update, Lick letter

When the New Mexico Legislature adjourned Thursday, supporters of Spaceport America there breathed sighs of relief. Two bills that would have altered use of a spaceport-related sales tax failed to pass before adjournment, and thus died, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported. As previously noted here, one bill would have prevented the state’s spaceport authority from using excess tax revenues to fund spaceport operations, while another would have reduced state aid to local schools by the amount of tax revenues collected for those purposes. In addition, legislators passed a capital works bill that includes $6 million to fund the next phase of work on a road that leads to the spaceport from the south.

Meanwhile, in California, nine Democratic members of the state’s Congressional delegation sent a latter Thursday to University of California president Janet Napolitano, asking her to reconsider a decision to end university funding of Lick Observatory near San Jose. Late last year, the UC system decided to phase out funding of the observatory—about $1.8 million a year—starting in 2016, with funding ending entirely in 2018, and focus instead on the much larger Keck Observatory and the planned Thirty Meter Telescope. “While we certainly understand the constraints of tight budgets, it would be short-sighted to pinch pennies by shutting down this exemplary facility,” the members, led by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, write, arguing that the 125-year-old observatory’s “time is not passed.”

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.

Government shutdown could delay NASA space science mission

Last year’s government shutdown, which ended more than four months ago, now seems like a distant memory, particularly now that Congress has found ways to work more cooperatively on issues like the fiscal year 2014 omnibus appropriations bill and debt limit increase. But while the shutdown might now seem like a bizarre fever dream to many, it could be a lasting nightmare for one NASA mission.

NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission, a set of four identical spacecraft designed to study plasma phenomena in the Earth’s magnetosphere, has a “launch readiness date” of this October, and an “agency baseline commitment” to launch next March. However, NASA Goddard director Chris Scolese said Tuesday that the actual launch date for the mission is now uncertain, Space News reported. Work on the mission at Goddard stopped during the shutdown that lasted for more than half of October, and, as a result, the mission lost its place in the launch queue with United Launch Alliance.

Scolese said he was sure the spacecraft would not launch this year, and, in a worst-case scenario, would have to wait until 2016. However, he said it may be possible to find a launch window for MMS during 2015 if another mission planned during that time experiences delays, opening up room on ULA’s launch manifest.

That delay is more serious than what NASA reported shortly after the shutdown ended. In a briefing to the Space Studies Board in early November, Marc Allen of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate said that the shutdown had delayed MMS by about a month, but that the spacecraft were “still within the launch window” despite that delay.

However, a delay is hardly the worst thing the MMS mission has had to worry about recently. In November, one of the four spacecraft was being trucked from Goddard to the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington for testing when an environmental control unit on the truck caught fire. The spacecraft was not damaged in the fire, although the truck sustained $50,000 in damage.