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.”