Sunday, March 6, 2011

LPSC Notebook: Trouble Ahead

An artist's conception of a submarine exploring the Europan Ocean is shown in this NASA-JPL illustration. Currently, I'm not even 30 and the chances that I will see pictures like this in my lifetime looks like they will decrease tomorrow once the planetary decadal survey is released.

Something's in the air here in the Woodlands, and it's not pleasant. I certainly got my week off to a bad start with some hotel snafus here at the 42nd LPSC that have seen me in a different room each night. I must also report that I'm a bit disappointed in the location. Basically, we're located at a pedestrian-unfriendly high-end strip mall, though I do understand that this location is cheaper and more accessible for many. Oh, and now this: leaked details of Steve Squyres' Planetary Decadal Survey as described by Space News.

Those leaked details were the talk of the reception and I have to tell you, the talk was nervous and unsettled. Allow me to quickly summarize the Space News story. As previously mentioned, this Planetary Decadal Survey is the most detailed ever constructed with full mission profiles and cost estimation provided by aerospace corp (at a cost to NASA of several million dollars). First and foremost, it thrusts a dagger into the heart of flagship missions. Three are identified as being of importance, in order these are: MAX-C (the caching astrobiology rover for Mars), a version of the Europa-Jupiter System Mission termed JEO for Jupiter-Europa Orbiter, and a Uranus Orbiter and atmospheric entry probe. Of these, it is felt that there is sufficient funding for only one to be considered through 2022: MAX-C.

But wait! It gets worse. Squyres' budget forcast used Obama's 2011 budget request which foresaw increasing funding for NASA SMD (Science Mission Directorate) for the next five years. However, that is already too optimistic. The new budget proposal for 2012 with projections through 2016 show an increase only in next year's plans... and cuts amounting to about $100 million per year thereafter. Under this budget ceiling, even MAX-C looks to be impossible.

Now, one thing to mention first is that SMD is only a small fraction of NASA's budget. Of the $19 billion or so the agency receives, SMD will get $1.54 billion next year, and only $1.25 billion by 2016, about 8% of the overall budget. Compare this to the cost of MAX-C ($3.5b), JEO ($4.7b) or UO+P ($2.7b) and you start to understand how hard it is to cram these kinds of projects in under the cost cap. Furthermore, flagship missions are not the only programs that SMD engages in. There are also small (Discovery-class and/or Scout-class ~$500m) and medium (New Frontiers ~$1b) missions to run along with the NASA R&A Programs. So it really is a case of robing Peter to pay Paul if you want to do the big ones.

It would be a shame if smaller missions, which tend to provide more opportunities for younger scientists, were cancelled to support the flagships. But it would be disastrous to cut money from R&A. That program is the bread and butter of the community and supports the scientists that NASA calls upon to help run its missions, process the data, and make the discoveries that give its program relevance. Because of the Budget Continuing Resolution, NASA R&A is already operating on an "underselection" basis designed to slow new awards.

From what I've heard, I feel like NASA is at a full-blown cross-roads when it comes to science-driven missions. If no flagships are selected, it could be 15 years before we are able to answer some of our most fundamental questions about the solar system. Plus, who is to say that things will change then? No flagships could, by default, become the new normal; changing forever the way that NASA does exploration. What does that say about our space program if we can no longer afford to do any of the most intensely difficult and most intensely rewarding exploration? Some suggest that international cooperation can pick up the slack, but SMD is just too large a player to be easily replaced.

There is also an issue of continuity to wrestle with. Many of my colleagues today are intensely worried about 2017, the year that Cassini funding runs dry. Without EJSM or JEO in the pipeline what do the people who have been training all their careers in outer planets and satellites with Cassini do for a living? Should we let all that expertise just evaporate? Furthermore, JEO was the prime candidate for a flagship from the 2003 decadal survey, to let it drift out even further in the future pushes back our exploration of, perhaps, the most fascinating body in the solar system: Europa.

I admit that I am a Mars Scientist, and I do understand the calculus that Squyres was performing in choosing to rank MAX-C above JEO. That $4.7 Billion figure is very scary, and the possibility that MAX-C could be descoped down to $2.5 Billion is likely what pushed its ranking up to number one. Perhaps I should be happy that my subfield may get the only new major funding in the next ten years.

But I've got a confession to make: one of my favourite parts of this business is that I get to see new worlds for the first time. Those of you who have come to my talks know this. I would like to see the mystery of past life on Mars solved, but more than anything else, before I die, I want to see pictures from that Europan Ocean. JEO only lays the groundwork for that mission, and if it doesn't get there before 2025 or 2030, then a lander or melter is unlikely before the 2040s when I will be in my 60s. That's the best case scenario.

All this is based on nothing more than a leak, though news and inside knowledge from National Academy members seem to support this story. With some luck I'll go to sleep tonight and find out tomorrow that this was all nothing more than a bad dream. However, if what we're hearing is right, I have a feeling that my star symposium talk won't be quite as upbeat as I had hoped it would be.

As a note, a couple of years back I wrote a mission concept for an Europan mission. I admit, it does look a bit dated and more than a bit naive today. My cost estimates seem to be way off too, but it was a fun exercise.


  1. *kicks blogger for having lost my first and second comment drafts*

    So. . .while I doubt the decadal will look good to most of us (um hi, I wrote a mission white paper which was totally ignored so they could do another mission study that was almost exactly the same), I think there may be some hope. Over in astrophysics land, the exoplanet people got completely shafted by our decadal. While the report called out exoplanets as a priority, specifically characterizing them, the only thing that was advocated for them was tagging their science onto the cosmology mission JDEM (which was then renamed WFIRST). While that's great and all, doing transits in the near IR as they'd do with WFIRST is less than groundbreaking and doesn't fulfill the decadal's supposed science priorities. But the hope comes from NASA HQ itself. . . in his presentation to the NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee Jon Morse actually calls out exoplanets and gives them personel support. It may not seem like much, but I think it's a very big step in astrophysics where we only dare question the decadal behind closed doors because we've been told that we have to publically support the thing.

    But if that news article is correct, I think our planetary decadal many advocate something we haven't seen before: nuking a mission if the costs start getting out of hand (which it sounds like it does for MAX-C). I like being in the murky region between astrophysics and planetary science, but god I wish astronomers would just have the fortitude to nuke our mission money pit of JWST now before it gobbles up another billion dollars of NASA money over 2 years.

  2. Since this "Before" article remains popular, I'd like to point out the "After" article which accompanies it: