Casey DreierFeb 02, 2015

It's Official: We're On the Way to Europa

General disclaimer: these are my personal, initial reactions to the President's FY2016 NASA budget request. The Planetary Society's official statement on the FY2016 budget is now posted.

We're on the way to Europa.

Without a doubt, the new commitment to Europa is the most exciting feature of the President's 2016 budget request for NASA, which was released earlier today. Also notable: a request of $18.5 billion overall for NASA, about $519 million more than it received in 2015 and higher than any request in four years. This increase, I argue, signifies a general acknowledgment that NASA is underfunded given its current mandate. It follows Congress' lead in increasing the budget last year, and proposes continued increases into the near future.

So overall: a good budget. A very good budget.

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Europa Flyby Concept Mission
Europa Flyby Concept Mission A solar-powered spacecraft could fly by Europa many times to achieve similar science return from an orbital mission, but avoid prolonged exposure to the harshest radiation environment around the moon. This rendering reflects an early spacecraft concept design.Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Not all of the news is good—but most of it is. I'm not used to saying that. I'll address some of the major issues in turn, and we'll explore more in future weeks here on the blog.

As you may know, the President's Budget Request is only the starting point for the coming fiscal debate within Congress. The numbers proposed are far from final. But it's an important document nonetheless, since it essentially defines official White House policy towards space exploration. This is important, since there are a multitude of small decisions that impact the space program that don't make it into Congressional bills. We find them here.

Ok, so we're kicking off the 2016 budget cycle with Congress. What are we kicking off with? I've condensed a few of the most interesting funding lines below. You can also see the full details in NASA's FY2016 Budget Request [pdf] or a really excellent writeup [also a pdf] by Marcia Smith at Space Policy Online.

 2016 Requested2015 Passed
NASA Top line$18,529$18,010
 All Science$5,298$5,243
   Planetary Science $1,361$1,438
   Earth Science $1,947$1,772
   Astrophysics $709$684
 Commercial Crew$1,244B$805
 Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM)$38$0

All numbers in millions. ARM funding is limited to mission-formulation activities only, not those that support the Asteroid Initiative broadly.

Astute readers may notice that the Planetary Science line is still not at the Society's recommended $1.5 billion. In fact, it's another cut from congressional levels passed in 2015. This is the fourth year in a row this has happened. A glass-half-full way to look at this number, however, is that it is the highest number requested in the President's budget since 2012. This trend of increasing requests has continued every year since the first cuts were proposed, and in this budget we even see future funding hitting $1.5 billion by 2019. That's a step! But still deeply frustrating.

A consequences of these cuts is a reduced frequency of medium-class New Frontiers missions (cost-capped at $1 billion) and the fact that both the Opportunity rover and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter both have their funding zeroed out. This happened last year (though both were funded in the supplemental Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative budget—remember that?).

I am confident we can make a strong case to continue both of these missions. An independent review of both missions' extended operations recommended the continuation of both [pdf], and both are relatively cheap, requiring a total of only $25 million per year to run both. Also, NASA clarified that they will strive to find alternative funding to support both missions in 2016, despite the formal request of $0. So it's not like NASA is dead-set on killing these missions.

Again, I'm not too worried. Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) has already released a statement lamenting these cuts, saying:

"It was my hope that this year, Congress would not have to fight the Administration again over cuts to planetary science, but proponents on Capitol Hill are ready to get to work and increase the planetary science numbers."

A good sign, and another signal about the great support that planetary exploration at NASA receives in Congress.

But let's focus on some of the good news.

Mars 2020 gets an increase—up to $228 million—to support the next stage in its development. The near-Earth object program gets a $10 million boost to $50 million to help identify targets for the asteroid retrieval mission. And, of course, the new start for Europa.

What's a "new start"? At its most basic level, it means that NASA can pursue the development process to create a mission to explore Europa. That's new, and that's important. Europa has moved from "mission concept" to "mission," with details to figure out, plans to draw, teams to assemble, and hardware to build (eventually). It's a step that Congress could not force NASA to take (NASA being an executive branch agency and all) no matter how much money it gave to them. The White House and NASA deserve credit for deciding to pursue this mission. In fact, I believe that this budget will occupy a small place in history as document that officially began the exploration of Europa.

Outside of planetary science, you have the Administration requesting significantly less money for SLS/Orion than Congress provided last year, and requesting significantly more money for commercial crew than Congress has ever provided. Expect both areas to be a point of contention during as this budget works its way through the Senate and House. NASA points out (correctly) that their contracts with Boeing and SpaceX require a higher level of spending for the next few years, and any decrease would delay the 2017 goal of launching astronauts from U.S. soil again.

The Asteroid Retrieval Mission continues its odd course. The Administration once again requests technology development funds for solar electric propulsion, NEO detection, and other related programs throughout the agency, yet only requests $38 million for pre-formulation studies of the asteroid capture spacecraft itself. NASA has yet to decide on which option (redirect a small asteroid or grab a boulder from a larger one) to pursue, and we are not sure when this selection will occur. This continued delay does not bode well for the future of this mission as proposed.

But overall, I think this is a budget worthy of praise. There are problems, sure, but overall this is a strong budget that moves NASA in the right direction. Let's keep running with these increases—all the way to Mars, all the way to Europa.

Fund NASA.

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