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The 2020 Rover in Context

It's not as a big of a change as you might think

Posted by Casey Dreier

05-12-2012 2:24 CST

Topics: Mars 2020, Space Policy, Future Mission Concepts, Mars

Dr. John Grunsfeld, Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA (which controls the entire science budget in the agency), upset my plans of attending a fun NASA Social event today by announcing a new MSL-like rover to land on Mars in 2020. This rover will save money by using the same general design as Curiosity, even going so far as to incorporate spare parts left behind by the current Mars rover. The science instruments have yet to be defined, and it may or may not acquire and store samples of the Martian soil to be retrieved by a future mission to return them to Earth. It was a major announcement, solidifying plans by NASA to continue the long-term study of Mars.

MSL-Derived Mars Sample Caching Concept Rover


MSL-Derived Mars Sample Caching Concept Rover
An artist's concept of an MSL-derived caching rover that uses solar panels instead of an RTG for its power source. This is similar to what was proposed on Dec 4th, 2012 by NASA as the 2020 mission to Mars, though it is unclear whether or not it would use solar panels.

On first blush this sounds like win for the planetary science community and fans of space exploration - and in many ways, it is. A new mission to Mars is always something to celebrate. But a closer examination of the facts reveals that this announcement does not in any way alter the reduced funding levels for planetary science.

Today's announcement brought out a lot of frustration from parts of the scientific community that feel like NASA gives too much attention to Mars at the expense of other targets (like Venus, Uranus, Titan, Enceladus, or Europa). It also caused consternation among some Mars scientists because it was not labeled as a "caching mission," the first step in a multi-mission campaign to return samples from Mars to the Earth and the highest-priority mission in the Decadal survey. Many in the public saw it as merely "another MSL" that costs billions of dollars.

After spending a lot of time today questioning John Grunsfeld, Jim Green (Planetary Science Division Director at NASA), and many other planetary scientists, I've come to the following conclusion:

Many people have misunderstood today's announcement. On the surface, it sounded like NASA made a major policy decision on the future of solar system exploration. However, upon examination of the 2013 budget, it turns out that the 2020 rover mission is perfectly consistent with the reduced funding priorities from ten months ago.

Let me repeat that. NASA's budget for planetary science has not changed from its proposed 2013 levels. The priorities have not changed. The distribution of funds within the Planetary Sciences division has not changed. The Planetary Science division still stands to suffer a $309 million cut in 2013.

Ok, so what exactly is going on? How can NASA afford this new rover?

First, we need to understand a little bit about the budgeting process (yes, I know, but bear with me, it's worth it).

In February of 2012 the President released a proposed federal budget for the fiscal year 2013 (which runs from Oct 1st, 2012 to Sep 30th, 2013). It included a large cut to NASA's Division for Planetary Science - about 20% - much of which came out the Mars Exploration Program.

The Mars Exploration Program (MEP) is a line-item within the Planetary Science budget. This is a bucket of money that NASA devotes to the exploration of Mars, and it currently funds all active Mars missions and research programs. The MEP is a separate bucket of money from the Discovery program, which funds missions like InSight and Dawn, and the New Frontiers program, which funds missions like OSIRIS-REx and Juno.

Another key point is that the White House's budget contains projected spending allocations for the next five years. This helps agencies plan their long-term projects. The 2013 budget contained the five-year budget allocation for the Mars Exploration Program. Here's what it looked like yesterday, before the announcement:

Mars Exploration Program Budget Projection
Mars Exploration Program Budget Projection
This is the 2013 budget projection for NASA's Mars Exploration Program. Vertical axis is millions of dollars. Notice the dip and then gradual increase starting in 2016. Data from page 102 of the NASA 2013 Budget Request.

Remember, these numbers are directly from the 2013 budget request which was released in February. Notice that in 2016 the program's budget starts to increase again. Looking more deeply into the budget request, one notices that the increase is due to a line-item named Mars Next Decade. This was a placeholder name for a yet-to-be-determined Mars mission that today became the 2020 rover.

So here's the Mars Exploration Program budget projection after today's announcement of the 2020 Rover mission:

Mars Exploration Program Budget Projection with 2020 Rover
Mars Exploration Program Budget Projection with 2020 Rover
This is the same plot as the 2013 budget project for the Mars Exploration Program. This emphasizes that, starting in 2016, the increases in the budget are now assigned to the Mars 2020 rover mission.

The numbers are exactly the same. They have to be. The 2013 budget request from the President was officially released ten months ago and cannot be revised by individual agencies. Also, John Grunsfeld and Jim Green technically work for the President. They cannot publicly disagree with official policy, and they certainly cannot go around modifying their official budget to pay for new programs. As Jim Green put it to me (and I paraphrase here), if he or Grunsfeld changed their budgets without approval and told the public about it, they would not have jobs to go home to.

I'm going to say this again because I feel like I cannot emphasize this enough. Today's announcement essentially designates money already set aside for a Mars mission to a specific mission concept. That's it. It did not take money away from outer planets missions, because in the 2013 budget there is no funding for outer planets missions. It did not unfairly prioritize Mars over other planets because this money had already been prioritized to Mars back in February.

The mission that was defined today was essentially a variant of one of the mission proposals from the Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG), which was tasked to create missions that would fit within the 2013 budget constraints. In fact, it sounds a lot like a variant of Option C:

MSL-Derived Mars Sample Caching Concepts


MSL-Derived Mars Sample Caching Concepts
Rover C: based on MSL delivery and chassis, with inventory reuse and some de-­scopes (e.g. solar vs. RTG). Rover D: derived from Rover C with Mars Ascent Vehicle integrated into rover and carried to sampling sites.

Under the limited funding available in the 2013 budget projections, 2020 was the earliest date at which a rover mission was possible.

There are very valid criticisms to the 2013 budget for Planetary Sciences. We here at the Society have been working hard to reverse the cuts back to the division so we can pursue missions to Europa and other targets via Discovery-class missions. But nothing that was said today changes any of that.

So if you were disappointed by today's announcement because you were hoping for something different than Curiosity, don't get upset at NASA, John Grunsfeld, Jim Green, or the Mars program.

Funnel your frustration (or excitement) into activism. If we restore funding for planetary science back to $1.5 billion/year, NASA could pursue a 2018 Mars caching rover, a Europa mission, and a new Discovery mission in 2015. It's a small, small amount of money by government standards.

Today solidified NASA's commitment to the continued exploration of Mars. That is a good thing. But it didn't alter the fundamental challenges facing NASA's Planetary Sciences program. We still need to Save Our Science and reverse the cuts. There are so many places to go, and it takes so little to get us there.

See other posts from December 2012


Or read more blog entries about: Mars 2020, Space Policy, Future Mission Concepts, Mars


Paul Wren: 12/05/2012 08:51 CST

This is news everyone concerned about yesterday's announcement should hear. It does not lessen the sting of cuts/cancellations elsewhere in Planetary Science, but should put an end to people thinking MSL-part-two took funds away from something else.

Enzo: 12/05/2012 03:19 CST

It's all well and good to ask for the politicians to restore the budget. However, if this is not possible, the second best thing is to lobby to re-allocate the money you have more equitably. NASA is showing a strong, unscientific bias towards Mars because, even when it had a choice, even withall the money spent and to be spent on Mars, it has chosen yet another Mars mission (Insight over TiMe). Even when the Titan's mission could not be done without an expensive orbiter for another 20 years (while a Mars misison can be launched every two). Even when it cost only $425 M. What I saw yesterday was another $1.5 B for Mars. This is after $2.5 B for Curiosity, $500M for yet to be launched MAVEN, another $425 for the yet to be launched Insight. Total $ ~5 B for Mars alone at a time where none could find the $2B for an Europa, Titan or Neptune orbiter. Shouldn't NASA or the Planetary Society for that matter be for space exploration and not Mars exploration only ? When the sad news that NASA had chosen yet another Mars mission over the much better TiMe to the Titan's lakes, the Planetary Society post was "Yuppy, we are going to Mars again !!!" (or something to that extent). Is it only me or did anyone else felt let down ? I thought that lobbying wasn't just for funding but, also, on how to spend them more equitably. Friends are not just to tell you how good you are when you are doing well, but also to tell you when you are wrong. NASA is wrong in the allocation. It's as simple as that. So it's fine to funnel frustration just to the cuts but also to how the little allocated is spent. At the moment I am ferociously disappointed that NASA seems to be hijacked by a such narrow interest group (Mars, Mars and more Mars). Any strong bias like this is highly unscientific. And don't get me wrong : I love Mars exploration, I'd just like to see some equity. I really like Curiosity, Opportunity, etc, but can we do something else, please ?

nimo : 12/05/2012 03:53 CST

I knew they were going to go through with the solar panel based msl! Its a great design and frame that is vital for geological and scientific research that will be needed to replace the aging Opportunity and the now defunct Spirit, that way we are able to be constantly exploring and learning more and more from our red brother. That having been said, I agree with a lot of what Enzo is saying. The sole rover based exploration of Mars is greatly impacting our interaction within our inner solar system. Obviously we couldnt send a rover to an extreme object like venus, mercury or io because of the excessive heat and in venus' case, pressure, yet when it comes to sending rovers to beyond the inner asteroid belt, we here in america no longer have the ability to produce mass quantities of plutonium, leaving only battery based power that will last only a few hours, or coughing up the money to buy a RTG off the russians. I fear that missions are beginning to stagnate, and to the public, they are becoming repetitive, merely solidifying what was already known leading the public to think these advances as 'waste'. Personally, I would like to see 1) a mission to Venus based on the plausibility of using blimps/balloons to study the upper and mid atmosphere to learn more about the skies of venus, and see how long such a craft could survive. Along with this, Nasa will need to study what happens when humans are sent into deep space, and rather than a straight to the point manned/landing mission to mars, if we go back to the basics of the early Apollo program and scrap the expensive and rather pointless L2 station, we need to send a crew to orbit, not land, but orbit another planet, and since Venus has a shorter flight path than mars, although closer to the sun, we would learn so much while really putting the inspiration and the dream back into children and adults on why we should care about space. 2)sending a similar lander as the phoenix lander to the poles of Mercury in order to examine the ice and test for organics. 3)Begin construction of a RTG powered rover similar to the MSL platform, to be sent to Titan by 2030. This should be what people want to think about when they think about the future of space, that way the appropriate funds could be raised and incorporated into designing a solid rover that will shatter what we thought we knew about our galaxy.

Rhous: 12/05/2012 04:08 CST

Enzo has hit the nail on the head! If Mars has its own line item, there is absolutely no way InSight should have beaten a comet explorer or a Titan probe - however NASA opted for a repeat of the Phoenix mission with a rod to stick into the ground. In addition, Enzo is yet again right on the fact that money should be re-prioritized from Mars for other exploration in lieu of the current budget perspective. Finally - if we think about budget and public outreach as a hand-in-hand issue we have something else to face: pretty pictures count! Another MSL, or MSL for that matter loses public interest really quickly! We are discovering a lot of esoteric content, that isn't helping the public rally behind the idea that Mars (ergo NASA) is producing new and cutting edge missions. Realize - that is an incorrect fact, Mars is not routine, but neither was Apollo 17 - and we all know how that story ends. From an educators perspective, I would hope TPS would rally behind non-Mars missions, because it would expand the types of missions to educate the public on and rally them behind. It will be hard to make America swallow another MSL pill at a 2x anticipate price tag when it has already "been done before..." That will result in a bigger loss of public enthusiasm and funding.

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