Right now, I can guarantee that the air is crackling in the meeting rooms of the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Texas, where this report was just released to the scientists and engineers who conduct the exploration of other worlds. Their working futures will be shaped by the document.
NASA looks to the NRC's decadal surveys to provide a prioritized list of science missions in efforts like Astronomy and Astrophysics, Earth Science, Solar and Space Physics, and Planetary Science. The NRC relies on the community of scientists working in the discipline to set priorities for the next 10 years. The missions they recommend are the ones that will most likely be undertaken -- if the U.S. Congress and Administration provide the money.
And therein lies the problem: The committee based their recommendations on the fiscal year 2011 budget, which has not yet been passed by the Congress. The 2012 budget proposal and the so-called out-years spending projection will give NASA far less money than the committee assumed.
Before we consider what might or might not happen, let's take a look what the decadal survey recommended, based on a prepublication copy what might still be edited. Note that the committee's analysis indicated that the top flagship missions, MAX-C and the Jupiter Europa Orbiter, would have to be "descoped," or reduced in ambitions and costs, before they can be considered possible.
The Recommended Program can be conducted assuming a budget increase sufficient to allow a new start for JEO. It includes the following elements (in no particular order):
Discovery program funded at the current level adjusted for inflation; Mars Trace Gas Orbiter conducted jointly with ESA; New Frontiers Missions 4 and 5; MAX-C (descoped to $2.5 billion); Jupiter Europa Orbiter (descoped); Uranus Orbiter and Probe
The Cost Constrained Program can be conducted assuming the currently projected NASA planetary budget. It includes the following elements (in no particular order):
Discovery program funded at the current level adjusted for inflation; Mars Trace Gas Orbiter conducted jointly with ESA; New Frontiers Mission 4 and 5; MAX-C (descoped to $2.5 billion); Uranus Orbiter and Probe
(If you're not up-to-date on NASA acronyms and program names, New Frontiers are medium-class missions that would cost up to $1 billion (in FY 2015 dollars); smaller missions in the Discovery class are capped around $500 million and, being less expensive, don't need to be ranked by the decadal survey. JEO = Europa Jupiter Orbiter, MAX-C = Mars Astrobiology Explorer-Cacher = Mars sample return.)
The Planetary Science Decadal Survey committee faced a nearly impossible task: to set priorities for NASA's robotic exploration within a tight budget. They did a great job in laying out a plan for space missions over the next decade and reached consensus on their recommendations -- no small achievement in itself.
But the committee's work was based on assumptions from NASA's FY 2011 budget (which has yet to be enacted) and their carefully crafted priorities are being released in the wake of a much leaner FY 2012 proposal, which removes $6 billion from NASA's five-year "run-out." The U.S. Administration and Congress are not providing the once-promised support for space exploration. The budget assumed by the decadal survey will not be provided.
"The flow of scientific creativity and technical innovation cannot be turned on and off like a spigot. To make progress, there must be steady support," said Bill Nye, Executive Director of the Planetary Society. "NASA is charged with exploring and innovating, but the Congress and Administration routinely turn the spigot on and off, and then seem outraged when NASA fails to meet their schedules and expectations."
Looking at the proposed FY 2012 budget numbers, all science disciplines will take a hit, especially planetary science. No money has been allocated for a Mars mission in 2018. In fact, there is no money for any future Mars mission in this budget after 2016, including Mars sample return. The high-priority Europa orbiter is not even in the budget.
"Just as the Planetary Science Decadal Survey presented its thoughtful recommendations, NASA is faced with reworking the whole thing to save as much science as possible within this new federal budget," said Bill Nye.
The Planetary Society is deeply disappointed that there may well be no "flagship" mission to the outer planets. An independent cost estimate from the Aerospace Corporation put a $4.7 billion price tag on the proposed Europa Jupiter System Orbiter. Even by reducing the reducing the spacecraft's capabilities and with ESA sharing the cost, the committee did not think it will fit within a cost constrained program.
"This is not just the loss of an American flagship mission, it is a loss to planet Earth," said Louis D. Friedman, the society's former Executive Director. "Europa does not care if we arrive there in 2030, 2050, or never, but this generation of children will wonder what was wrong with our generation, if we fail to follow up the discoveries made by the Voyager, Galileo and Cassini spacecraft, and make it possible for their generation to feel the wonder we enjoyed as those flagships explored strange new worlds."Download the Decadal Survey (PDF)