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The End of Opportunity and the Burden of Success

Can NASA sustain its golden age of planetary exploration?

Posted by Casey Dreier

15-04-2014 20:19 CDT

Topics: FY2015 NASA Budget, Explaining Policy, Space Policy, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Opportunity, mission status, Mars Exploration Rovers, spacecraft, the Moon, Mars

Lately, multiple news outlets have reported on the possible cancellation of the Opportunity rover, the longest-running Mars surface mission in history. Less reported, but equally important, is that NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), currently orbiting the Moon, is in the same situation.

Roving on Opportunity is currently exploring the outcrops around Endeavour Crater in this artist's conception. You can follow the mission with our monthly MER Update.

NASA / JPL-Caltech

Most people find this mind-boggling. The cost to run both missions is around $25 million dollars per year, about 2% of the budget of NASA's Planetary Science Division, and approximately 0.15% of NASA's total budget (I'd plot this, but the amount is too small to be seen). For missions that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build and launch, surely we can find a small amount of money to keep them running?

To really understand why both missions are threatened, we need to delve into the budget situation at NASA, particularly with the beleaguered Planetary Science Division. It all comes down to the initial cuts to the planetary program, but not just because there is less money to work with, but because the previous decade's funding had allowed an unprecedented string of successful missions that now weighs heavily around NASA's neck.

The 2015 Budget Proposal and the Unwelcome Surprise for Opportunity and LRO

The President's 2015 budget request for NASA was released in March, kicking off the spring budget season in Congress. It acts as the starting point of congressional budget decisions. For the third year in a row, the White House proposes cuts to NASA's Planetary Science Division (responsible for all planetary missions). Additionally, the White House zeroed out the operating budgets for Opportunity and LRO in 2015, leading many people to (correctly) worry that both missions will be canceled next year.

LRO at the Moon


LRO at the Moon
An artist's conception of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) in orbit around the Moon.

But there's a rub: the President also released a supplemental budget request called the Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative (OGSI, pronounced "augsey"). This supplemental request was in response to a congressional budget deal that limited discretionary spending in 2015 to a relatively low level. The President's budget, which zeroes out Opportunity and LRO, observes this limit. But since the Administration thinks that this level of domestic spending is too low, they created the OGSI to show what they likely would have included in the budget had this limit not been imposed.

The OGSI contains $35 million to pay for continued operations for Opportunity and LRO. So these missions aren't canceled in the sense that the SOFIA telescope is canceled (appearing in neither the regular budget nor the OGSI supplemental request), but since the OGSI will never be passed into law by Congress, the two missions are not exactly safe, either.

Now, the question of how to pay for Opportunity and LRO would not normally be an issue if the Planetary Science Division's budget hadn't been cut repeatedly in the past few years, but the White House has been obsessively slashing this part of NASA for years, cutting hundreds of millions of dollars since 2013. While Congress has been able to mitigate these cuts somewhat, we still face a series of immediate and long term consequences to NASA's ability to explore the solar system, some of which we are just beginning to understand.

The Price of a Planetary Golden Age

With all of the dour budget news of late, you may not have noticed that we're living in a golden age of planetary exploration. NASA has over a dozen spacecraft exploring the solar system from Mercury to Pluto. NASA instruments are riding along on even more missions from the European Space Agency. Mars is being explored in more detail than ever before, as is Titan, Enceladus, Saturn, and the asteroid belt.

What's Up in the Solar System diagram by Olaf Frohn (updated for March 2017)

Olaf Frohn

Active Science Missions

Current science missions by NASA and other space agencies as of April 2014. Note that not all of these are planetary missions.

Nearly all of these missions were spawned in the previous decade (some, like Cassini, even earlier). During the ten years spanning 2003 - 2012, NASA launched twelve spacecraft to explore the solar system. It could do this because funding was healthy, averaging around $1.5 billion per year for Planetary Science. Not a single one of these missions failed to achieve their primary missions.

It's not a surprise that it takes money to operate spacecraft. You need a team of engineers, computer technicians, trajectory planners, and scientists to plan the mission's activities and keep the spacecraft safe. It costs money to use NASA's Deep Space Network—the only way to communicate with a distant spacecraft. Not all missions are equal: a relatively straightforward mission like LRO can run on about $9 million per year, but a more complicated mission, like Curiosity, costs about $60 million per year. The cumulative cost of operating a dozen spacecraft as well as NASA contributions to foreign missions (like to ESA's Mars Express) adds up to a significant fraction of the planetary exploration program. In 2013, the last year that we have full data, the cost was around $270 million—a little more than a fifth of the entire budget for NASA's Planetary Science Division.

That's a lot of money not spent on building new missions! The cost of mission operations is projected to peak at about $308 million in 2015 (assuming Opportunity and LRO continue).  To put that in perspective, a small-class mission, like the upcoming Mars lander InSight, costs about $450 million to build the spacecraft.

As the decade continues, the costs of operations will decline as missions naturally come to an end.

Note that years beyond 2014 are just the Administration's proposed spending. These numbers can change.

Can the costs of operating missions be decreased? It depends. When cuts do happen, they tend to come from the scientific side of the mission, since the engineers are required to keep the spacecraft safe. But most missions have already been pared down significantly in terms of operational cost. Cassini originally needed about $80 million per year to operate, and now makes due with around $60 million, with cuts mainly hitting the science team.

The two biggest-ticket missions are Curiosity and Cassini. Spacecraft entering the prime phase of their missions, like New Frontiers, Juno, and Dawn, clock in around $20 - $25 million per year. NASA's contributions to foreign missions tend to cost in the single millions. I've created a spreadsheet of all active planetary missions and their operational costs from 2011 - 2019 which you can view at your leisure, or take a quick glance at the breakdown chart below.

So if we prioritize continued operation of existing missions (and I think we should), this becomes a fixed cost of the current planetary program. Cuts to the top-line hurt more than you would otherwise think, as there is less flexibility to absorb them. Pretty much the only thing you can do is delay, cancel, and descope new missions, which is exactly what we've seen happen.

This year, then, the White House is trying to pare down the costs of missions to open up more for future missions. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden stated that he supports continuing missions unless they threaten the development of new missions.

The Future

The cuts by the White House don't just threaten missions now, but sacrifice the future health of NASA's planetary program. The cuts have had a particularly strong impact on future missions: this decade, we will likely see the launch of only six to seven planetary missions, a drop of about 50% compared to the previous decade's launch rate. There will be fewer replacements for the missions nearing the end of their lives. Both Cassini and Juno are planned to end in 2017, at which point there will be no NASA missions in the outer solar system for the first time in about 40 years. NASA has committed to no missions to replace them.

Even as the burden of operating existing missions decreases over the next few years, it will be difficult to replace them. The delicate balance of funding development of multiple spacecraft means that you must space out construction schedules so no spacecraft demand "peak" funding during the same year (peak funding coincides with the most active period of spacecraft construction). So even an increase to historical levels of planetary funding will necessarily require years to rebuild our fleet of scientific spacecraft. The damage has already been done.

NASA's Planetary Science Division Funding and Number of Missions 2004 - 2020

Lori Dajose/Michael Wong/Loren Roberts/Casey Dreier for the Planetary Society

NASA's Planetary Science Division Funding and Number of Missions 2004 - 2020
Funding for planetary exploration at NASA mapped against the number of missions in development, adjusted for inflation and for programmatic consistency. Current as of the FY2016 President's Budget Request.

The future is uncertain for Opportunity and LRO. Later this year, NASA will initiate its biennial senior review for all planetary science missions that have lasted beyond their primary mission goals. The senior review process evaluates the scientific potential and technical capabilities of each mission and ranks them according to this combined value. In 2012, Cassini was ranked the most highly and the now-defunct Deep Impact ranked the lowest.

Jim Green, the Director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, stated at a recent conference that if Opportunity and LRO ranked highly in the senior review, that they would continue at the expense of a lower-ranked mission. We will know the outcome of these reviews later this year.

At least one representative of Congress, Adam Schiff (D-CA), has spoken out against the cancellation of Opportunity. The Planetary Society and other scientific organizations have also come out against cancelling any missions still returning good science. We've also been asking our members and the public to write congress to show support for Opportunity and LRO (and the entire planetary program).

If Congress restores the budget for the Planetary Science program back to its historical average, funding for Opportunity, LRO, and all other operating missions becomes far easier to maintain. We could also begin other important missions, like the one to explore Jupiter's moon Europa.

NASA faces a problem of its own making: it was too successful. It built too many spacecraft that outlasted their design requirements. There is too much science to do, too many mysteries to figure out, too many questions to answer. But the obsessive desire by the White House to cut planetary exploration—an obsession now in its third year—has forced NASA to choose between its current spacecraft and the future of the program. Planetary Science has done well to preserve its most valuable assets, but we have paid an unknowable price in the loss of science return in the next ten years from the missions that may never happen.

Opportunity and LRO are the most recent and visible example of this absurd punishment of success. As most people point out, a minor adjustment to NASA's budget will ensure the continued operation of both missions. The Administration itself acknowledges the value of both missions by placing them in the OGSI. Let's not make these two unique missions pay the price of this political gamble.

>>> Make sure to write Congress to #SaveOpportunity and #FundPlanetary.

Giordano Bruno Crater


Giordano Bruno Crater
A view of Giordano Bruno, a 22-km-wide impact crater on the far side of the Moon. When viewed large, the high resolution and oblique angle of this Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter image almost make it seem like you're standing right on the edge of the crater.
See other posts from April 2014


Or read more blog entries about: FY2015 NASA Budget, Explaining Policy, Space Policy, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Opportunity, mission status, Mars Exploration Rovers, spacecraft, the Moon, Mars


Bill: 04/15/2014 11:08 CDT

The cost is $25m per year to run BOTH Mars' Opportunity Rover and Moon's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). The amount is small in relative terms BUT NASA is short of funds due to budget cuts. However, it still seems so very sad and such a waste to 'let them go' when both machines are functional..., after so much costs were incurred to design, test, fly and deploy them there... Apart from lobbying US Congress, can private companies, rich entrepreneurs and private donations or other countries involvement to support this two missions, ie, they pay and benefit from the results to keep them running? If not, can they be 'sold off' or donated to another country's space agency, like ESA, to keep them running if they are interested, rather than to switch them off or to crash them deliberately? It may be the next drive over the hill that Opportunity may find clay deposits that hold fossil life or niche habitat that harbours living lichens now. LRO may spot a lunar outgassing event from Ina formation or the likes of Ina. No onw can be sure, but we are sure we won't find out if we discard them now. There is so much they can still contribute and discoveries to be made but they do cost money to run. I really hope someone(s), whether private enterprises or foreign govts or rich entrepreneurs from all over the world, and not just the US (Congress), can come and help save these two missions for humankind, especially for our young children and show them what we can do as a collective united group from our world. These missions, especially Opportunity has mesmerised countless children across the world when both Spirit and Opportunity took them on a front seat ride on Mars over 10 years ago. We have the responsibility to show our children what we can do for them now, after they have worked so well for us, and to not let both our machines and our children down.

George: 04/16/2014 12:04 CDT

Again, a big "thank you" to everyone who supported this president and the current administration (including a CEO or two who likes selfies). Boy, do I miss every other administration who supported NASA and planetary science...

Stephen: 04/16/2014 03:03 CDT

Back in April 23, 2010 the Washington Post reported that a "group of space experts, former astronauts and space advocates voiced support for Obama's plan [to end the Constellation program] Thursday in a teleconference organized by the Planetary Society". One of the speakers was "Louis Friedman, executive director and co-founder of the Planetary Society" who "said that Obama's willingness to propose new pathways and destinations is a sign of American leadership. "This plan would take Americans out to near-Earth asteroids, to deep space and to Mars -- destinations that other nations are not even contemplating," I cannot help wondering if that if still the point of view of Mr Friedman; and indeed of the Planetary Society in general. I ask that because having NASA go out in those "new pathways and destinations" plainly involved ending some existing ones. Namely, Constellation and its proposed return to the Moon. Mr Friedman was clearly prepared to embrace that. The problem, however, was that one of the products of the Constellation program was a new set of unmanned missions to the Moon, which (apart from Clementine) had been largely neglected by America's space program ever since the end of Apollo. One of those new missions was LRO. I think it is fair to say that back in April 2010 the thing on Mr Friedman's mind was that LRO might also face a premature demise! Nor, I suspect, did it did occur to him or anyone else anyone in the Planetary Society that NASA's unmanned program in general would also be in line for budget slashing further down the track. Or if did the notion was dismissed. How times change! Back in 2010 the Society embraced the sacrificing of Constellation to pay for (manned) visits to "near-Earth asteroids, to deep space and to Mars"--programs which have yet to materialise in any substantial fashion. Now wagons are being circled. In truth, however, those wagons should have been circled back in April 2010.

Arbitrary: 04/16/2014 04:45 CDT

NASA shold donate those missions to someone who cares about them, and who could run tham at 5% or so of current costs.

Bob Ware: 04/17/2014 01:56 CDT

I know there are regulations against this in general however is there some way to lease the spacecraft under different management but have them be operated by our own teams. Our knowledge and equipment needed to do so would be the only way for this to work. Thus NASA would generate revenue with it going straight to the U.S. Treasury.

OvineAviation: 04/19/2014 01:39 CDT

This year, Comet Siding Spring will sweep past Mars, and put at risk the small fleet of spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet. If one or more NASA operated orbiters are lost, could their operating budgets be shifted to Opportunity, which is relatively safe from the Comet within the Martian atmosphere, and if so, would it be enough?

selvaarchi: 04/19/2014 05:29 CDT

Like call centers, why can't long term operational missions be farmed out. NASA might try and internationalize the missions and get their foreign partners to take on more of the operational side of the mission and also the cost.

Stephen: 04/20/2014 03:26 CDT

@selvaarchi: You're using the wrong comparison. Farming out call centre services to foreigner corporations in foreign places is called "offshoring". That's where a domestic company or government agency pays a corporation sited in another country to provide a service domestically. Note: the US pays the foreigner for the service! NOT the other way around, which is (presumably) what you intended to mean by NASA "internationalising". its unmanned missions. That said,,many US unmanned missions do have an international element to them. Eg Cassini carried the ESA's Huygens probe. However, even with that international element the US still foots most of the cost for such probes. For example, according to wikipedia's article on the mission Cassini cost $3.26 billion, of which the US contributed $2.6 billion (80%), the ESA $500 million (15%), and the ASI (the Italian space agency) $160 million (5%). By "internationalise" you presumably mean that the that international partners would bear the BULK of the cost, It is not clear how that would occur if the international partners expected to be able to contribute something to the mission themselves besides just money (eg an instrument or two). Nor is the clear how "internationalising" a project would prevent the situation looming for Opportunity and the LRO. If the US is providing the bulk of the ongoing costs, if those funds stop, the mission will still end regardless UNLESS the international partners step in and provide ALL the ongoing funding, which (frankly) would seem more an exercise in wishful thinking!

Torbj??rn Larsson: 04/21/2014 10:01 CDT

Maybe it is time to realize that " I'm giving her all she's got, Captain!" Concentrating on new missions will provide Bolden with more, and younger, employed scientists. But since Opportunity is posed to do ist most exciting science yet, it is grating. Nitpick, possibly relevant fact checks if imploring politicians in the future: "Both Cassini and Juno are planned to end in 2017, at which point there will be no NASA missions in the outer solar system for the first time in about 40 years." New Horizons can be extended until 2026, I think, and last I heard the Kuiper Belt is still in the outer solar system. [ ] No one knows when Voyager 2 will leave the system "within a few years of 2016". [ ] And why exclude Voyager 1? Both these missions can be extended to 2025ish.

Fer: 04/22/2014 09:36 CDT

Hi all. In this article I've been searching for this 4 letters: JWST. And... no way (as usual). Why nobody recognises that NASA/USA has a huge black hole "at home", called JWST?

Nick Smyth: 04/22/2014 02:54 CDT

Leaving such amazing pieces of equipment to rot in such incredible places should be an indictable offence! Please keep them running; they are doing an invaluable, unique job.

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