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Van Kane

2016 Budget: Great Policy Document and Much Better Budget Plan

Posted by Van Kane

05-02-2015 19:25 CST

Topics: Space Policy, Future Mission Concepts, FY2016 NASA Budget

Every year, the President proposes a budget for the federal government. This massive document serves two purposes. First, it lays out the President’s proposed policies and priorities and therefore is a political document. Second, it specifies in great detail the spending needed to implement those policies for the coming year and therefore is also a budget document. Congress then takes – or ignores – both the policy and budget proposals and writes its own budget based on its policy priorities for the coming year. (Because the final budget laws must be signed by the President, he retains considerable influence over the final budget.)

NASA science program budgets

Van Kane

NASA science program budgets
The 2016 proposed budget plan would provide increases in most science programs over the rest of the decade. All figures are based on either actual prior year budgets or budgets proposed in the FY 2016 President’s Budget Request Summary for NASA.
NASA projected planetary budgets

Van Kane

NASA projected planetary budgets
This figure shows actual and budget projections for NASA Planetary Science program from the President's budget proposals over the last several years. The FY12 and FY13 budgets proposed steep cuts in the planetary program. Budgets since then have proposed increasingly robust future budgets.

The 53 pages that detail the proposed Fiscal Year 2016 NASA Planetary Science budget contains both policy and budget minutia. The policies implicit in the budget are great news for the future of planetary exploration: 

  • A dedicated mission to explore Europa is approved as a formal mission. (In federal budget speak, the mission gets its New Start approval.) Finally!
  • The projected budgets for the mid-cost ($700M to $1B) New Frontiers and low-cost ($450M) Discovery programs show healthy increases in the projected for 2017 to 2020. If carried through in future budgets, these increases would result in several more planetary missions than was assumed in last year’s proposed budget.

As a one year, Fiscal Year 16, proposed $1.36B budget, the document asks for a top line Planetary Science Division budget that is a small 5.4% cut from the actual FY15 budget that was approved by Congress. The budget includes sufficient funds to continue all missions in development. It also includes funds to continue all missions in flight except two (more on this in a moment). Among those missions is the Cassini mission at Saturn that would be funded through its planned 2017 end of mission rather than be terminated as previous years’ budget proposals had implied.

NASA planetary mission programs budgets

Van Kane

NASA planetary mission programs budgets
Actual and FY16 projected budgets for each of the major programs that fund current missions in flight and develop new missions. The major changes in each budget trace the peak funding ramps and declines as major missions are developed. See the next figure for details on spending ramps for individual missions in development.

So net, the proposed FY16 budget continues a strong program but incorporates important small cuts. For the past two years, Congress has added $80M and $85M to NASA’s proposed budgets to work on a mission to Europa. The proposed FY16 would reduce funding from the FY15 total Europa budget of $100M to $30M. The FY16 budget proposal, like the FY15 proposal, proposes to terminate the Mars Opportunity Rover and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter missions, even though their spacecraft remain healthy, for a savings of $26M. 

It seems likely that Congress will ignore these proposed cuts and the final budget will have more than $30M for the Europa mission and will continue the two missions proposed for termination. Congress did so last year when a tiny Europa budget was proposed and the same two missions were proposed for termination. 

(In other parts of NASA’s proposed budget, funding continues for the Solar Probe Plus mission that will launch in 2018 and repeatedly skim the top of the sun’s atmosphere. NASA would also begin pre-mission work on the WFIRST telescope that could also study exoplanets in orbit around other stars as well as conduct its primary mission to study the universe’s dark energy with an expected launch by 2020.)

Proposed spending for missions in development

Van Kane

Proposed spending for missions in development
The OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission and the InSight Mars lander will launch in 2016.

For future planetary mission plans, the real news is not in the proposed FY16 budget (business as planned with the addition of formally starting work on the Europa mission) but in the projected 2017 to 2020 budgets. These projected budgets lay out the vision for NASA's road map of future missions. 

To develop a mission, NASA’s managers need to keep track of both the current year budget (dollars they can actually spend) and those projected budgets. They cannot undertake a new future mission if funding is not projected to support it. While each current year’s budget is passed by Congress, projected budgets are set only by officials deep within the President’s budget office. It was the lack of projected future funding for the Europa mission in past projected budgets, for example, that prevented NASA from committing to this mission even though Congress repeatedly added significant funding that could be spent in each year.

The FY16 budget projections add a continuing stream of funding for the Europa mission while adding funding for the Discovery and New Frontiers mission programs. 

While the FY16 budget gives the Europa mission its New Start, the funding ramp through 2020 is slow. The budget document doesn’t say anything about when the mission would launch or its expected total cost. (I have heard, though, that NASA concluded that a bargain basement $1B mission wouldn’t meet the scientific goals.) Based on the slow ramp (even if Congress increases it somewhat as I expect), the launch seems likely to occur in the mid-2020s. To develop a mission expected to cost somewhere around $2B based on mission concepts, annual budgets of several hundred million dollars are needed. This budget bulge would not happen until after 2020. If the eventual mission launches on the SLS rockets NASA is currently developing, flight time to Europa would be about two years versus six and a half years if launch on a commercial rocket. While the SLS seems like the obvious choice, this is an expensive system that has yet to complete development and prove itself while the commercial launchers exist today.

If the projected Europa mission ramp is slow, the projected budgets for NASA’s low-cost Discovery missions show healthy increases. For the past decade, NASA’s budgets allowed it to only select new Discovery missions every five years. Under the projected budgets, new missions could be selected every two to three years, re-creating the vigorous Discovery program that existed in the 1990s and early 2000s. NASA’s managers are currently running a competition to select the thirteenth Discovery mission. The budget documents state that the next selection would begin in FY17. (Scientists can propose Discovery missions to study any solar system object except the sun and Earth, which are covered in other NASA programs.) 

The mid-cost New Frontiers program would also receive more funds under the projected budgets. While last year’s budget document did not foresee the selection of any new missions in its projected budgets, this year’s document states that the selection would begin in 2016. Given the slow ramp in projected budgets, though, the selected mission would seem likely to launch in 2022 or later. (Scientists only can propose New Frontiers missions from a pre-selected list of high priority missions developed by the last Decadal Survey that currently includes: Comet Surface Sample Return, Lunar South Pole-Aitken Basin Sample Return, Saturn Probe, Trojan Asteroid Tour and Rendezvous, and Venus In-situ Explorer.)

To return to the big picture, this is the first proposed budget for NASA’s planetary program that I’ve been excited about in some time. It addresses all the priority missions and programs identified by the scientific community in the last Decadal Survey. There is the niggling worry that seeing this program executed will require continued support by the President’s budget officials and Congress for the next decade. The FY16 budget – once Congress fixes those small proposed cuts – is a bold vision for what I believe will be an exciting decade leading to the launch of several new planetary missions.

See other posts from February 2015


Or read more blog entries about: Space Policy, Future Mission Concepts, FY2016 NASA Budget


Jason Callahan: 02/05/2015 08:58 CST

Nice analysis as always, Van!

Paul McCarthy: 02/06/2015 01:52 CST

While an actual start for the Europa mission is a good thing, your analysis still suggest an overall somewhat depressing scenario. You forecast no launch until the mid-20's. Europa, Enceladus and Titan stand head and shoulders above other targets both in terms of likelihood of life and its (relative) ease of detection, and this now is surely the one goal that can and will most excite and engage the public. If Europa is venting, both it and Enceladus can be sampled directly and (relatively) easily. And because the proposed biospheres on all three moons are essentially global in nature, if anything is around, traces of it will also probably be (relatively) easily detectable at almost any point that a lander could make it to the surface. This is very unlike, say, Mars. Meanwhile, the boosts you detail for Discovery and New Frontiers will result in more lunar, comet, asteroid, Venus or Saturn-atmosphere info, etc. All very interesting. But, in a nutshell, billions will be spent adding little pieces to various jigsaws, while the huge elephant in the room is still effectively decades and decades away in terms of full-on, determined investigation! Obviously the ideal situation is more $ in general, not subtraction from any other NASA activity. And it's also clear that serious investigation of Europa, Enceladus or Titan can't happen tomorrow even if buckets of cash appear immediately. But, nevertheless, there does seem to be a strange lack of urgency or recognition regarding the most promising and amazing exploration opportunities that have ever been available to mankind! I don't understand why there's not an almost Apollo-style crash program to test these places.

Stephen: 02/06/2015 02:48 CST

@Paul McCarthy: "Europa, Enceladus and Titan stand head and shoulders above other targets both in terms of likelihood of life and its (relative) ease of detection" First of all, on the "likelihood of life": issue, I'd be wary of counting chickens that have not yet actually hatched. It is way too easy to go in with high hopes only to see those hopes be cruelly dashed. Europa, Enceladus, & Titan are interesting worlds irrespective of whether life is there or not. Just as worlds like Mercury, Venus, and Triton are interesting worlds even though the chances of finding life on them is vanishingly close to zero;. Sending probes to other words should not depend on the likelihood or otherwise of finding life there. Secondly, there are still those who think life on Mars is likely, yet detecting its presence has proven amazingly difficult. Given that precedent I'd be wary about making claims of "relative ease:" of finding it elsewhere, if only because talking about the supposed "relative ease" in finding it begs a question: relative to what? After all, the only place in the entire universe where we know FOR CERTAIN life exists is Earth.. Its existence elsewhere, as yet, remains a matter of mere hopeful speculation. @Paul McCarthy: "And because the proposed biospheres on all three moons are essentially global in nature" Seems to me I can recall a time when the :proposed biosphere" for Mars was global as well. There was even thought to be a global biosphere on Venus, at least by science fiction authors! How times have changed! Like I said, be wary of counting unhatched chickens.

Arbitrary: 02/06/2015 03:56 CST

I think there are synergies between exoplanet research and missions to Uranus, Neptune and Venus which are the least known planets. Knowing our local planetary diversity helps understand exoplanet systems. And when we start seeing exo-atmospheres, mini-Neptunes and Venus type planets will likely be the first interesting analogs. If we don't know anything about them, that exoplanet research won't be very informative. Unfortunately, none of them seem to be on the agenda.

David Frankis: 02/06/2015 03:09 CST

"It seems likely that Congress will ignore these proposed cuts and the final budget will have more than $30M for the Europa mission and will continue the two missions proposed for termination." Perhaps that's what the WH is betting on. By lowballing things Congress likes they are more likely to get all the money they want. Plus, it gives some easy targets for Congress to make themselves look good (while actually spending more money), so reducing pressure on other things where cutting is what looks good.

Casey Dreier (Planetary Society): 02/06/2015 03:15 CST

It is important to understand the role of the Planetary Science Decadal Survey when discussing priorities. According to that document, which represented the consensus opinions of the scientific community when it was released in 2012 (after a 18 months of work), a Mars sample return mission was the highest priority "big mission" of this decade. It was followed closely by a (cheaper than proposed) mission to Europa. Third was a Uranus orbiter. It also provided a prioritized list of possible missions for New Frontiers selections. Given that the overall resource allotment to Planetary Science was far less than even the most pessimistic assumptions in the Decadal, it's pretty impressive we've gotten as far as we have. The price, essentially, is that most of these missions have been slow to get going. But again, the decadal survey provides the overall priority structure of the scientific community. It's not NASA arbitrarily choosing Europa over Enceladus.

Paul McCarthy: 02/06/2015 10:33 CST

Stephen: I more or less agree with all you say, especially about declining views of biospheres on Mars etc. But I guess that is the point I'm trying to make: over time, as new data flows in, the picture clearly changes (a lot!). So what I'm arguing is that the most productive approach, especially with perpetually constrained budgets, is to always take a "low hanging fruit" approach, always based on the most up to date inputs. On that basis, given the investments already made and the relative practicality and logistics of the task, I agree that Mars sample return still fits in that category. But I'd say that geysers on Enceladus and Europa (putative) and the constantly-cycling fluid dynamics of those moons and Titan, essentially redistributing all available goodies over globally detectable scales, have clearly launched those three also to the top of the "low hanging fruit" (whether life is detected or not). Conservatism and inertia are great dangers, especially when budgets are minimal, and there are many with fixed agendas and heavy career investments. In contrast, the "go for the jugular", "paradigm-shattering" style of the US private sector (think of all the IT stuff), and frequently in science also (Kepler mission; Venter with the genome) is what has so often yielded truly spectacular results. It just seems that many are bogged down in old priorities (fine if there were unlimited budgets), and that those three worlds are just SCREAMING for someone to scoop up a bit of them, but that nothing truly revealing is going to happen till long after we're all gone!

Torbjörn Larsson: 02/09/2015 06:13 CST

Good news! @Paul McCarthy: The Planetary Science Decadal Survey are *new* (updated) priorities. Furthermore, they haven't changed much since that strategy document. E.g. Europa (and Ceres, which is soon visited) may or may not have jets, while enceladus were known to have them. The search for life isn't about current life but conditions were life exists. If there is one news that screams for support it is that putative fossils have been detected on Mars. It is a peer reviewed claim by a merited scientist no less, and can't simply be dismissed as "weathering" - the null hypothesis for the many correlations in the condition list is now fossils. With the potential that there once existed lake systems and/or an ocean (needs and will get testing in the upcoming monts), finding biosphere refugia on Mars shouldn't be more complicated than the 2 m ExoMars drill to penetrate into the non-sterile crustal zone. We need to go to the ice moons eventually. That is the only way to estimate the frequency of life in the potentially largest habitable zone there is in the universe, the tidal habitable zone. Europa alone has 2-3 times the habitable ocean volume of Earth. But Mars has quicker turnaround on science and exploration, and it will teach us much more on life emergence in the near term.

Stephen: 02/09/2015 07:29 CST

Hey! What happened to my carefully formatted comment posted above on February 6? It is now one great big UNformatted lump of nearly unreadable text! Has somebody been meddling with the comment page system or has another bug struck?

Stephen: 02/09/2015 07:33 CST

Ah, good! Posting that last comment the other comments rae now back to normal

Torbjörn Larsson: 02/09/2015 07:40 CST

@Paul McCarthy: I forgot a recent concern re Enceladus (and so perhaps Europa). It shows up as alkaline by serpentinization in models. [ ] The alkalinity, ph ~11-12, is no worse than soda lakes, and (potentially catalytic) divalent metal atoms should still be present in protection of clays albeit at low levels. [Ibid.] On the surface [sic!] that looks like good news, serpentinization is both a source of hydrocarbons and energy. However, the alkaline ocean means the putative cells have to fight the wrong directionality of pH difference, with more acidic innards than the environment instead of relatively alkaline cytoplasm. If that condition kicked in too realy it could have extinguished life emergence. And all we are left with looking at conditions for serpentinization, interesting in itself of course. @Stephen: Myself, I hope they fix the size of the comment box first. Relying on pre-edits is a sure way to promote posting errors. But yeah, the posting editor is limiting too. ["I want ... space!", he cried./]

Paul McCarthy: 02/09/2015 10:08 CST

Mention of Ceres reminds me to say, apropos of the "Low Hanging Fruit" argument, and to clarify no hypocrisy, that if water-based geysers or any other kind of relatively easily accessible water occurrences were confirmed on that body, then, under the same argument, it would immediately go to the top of the list, considering easier access than some other targets. Ditto, eg, if even a miniscule, remnant hydrothermal signature was seen on Mars. So, as I say, priorities should be fluid and adjustable. But for my bet, without other new discoveries, that currently means Europa and Enceladus should be urgently and clearly on top.

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