Casey DreierMar 07, 2014

[Updated] To Europa!...Slowly. First Impressions of NASA's New Budget Request

Updated with additional details on ARM and a link to our petition to write Congress and the White House. All updates are in italics. We've also posted a special edition of Planetary Radio discussing the 2015 NASA Budget Request.

Happy NASA Budget request day!

The White House released parts of its formal request for next year's NASA budget today. As usual, there is both good and bad news contained within. Note that we don't yet have all of the details, but are limited to a mix of high-level numbers and answers we can get to  specific questions. NASA will provide more information in the next week or so, so stay tuned for the devils in the future details.

First, NASA's top-line budget is $17.46 billion. This was a surprise to many (me, at least), because it's a cut of nearly $254 million from last year's White House request and $185 million below what NASA actually received from Congress. We have the recent congressional budget deal to thank for this, which capped total non-mandatory spending levels for 2015 at $1.014 trillion. The White House's entire budget respects this cap and spreads the cuts around pretty evenly. There is an important caveat to this, as we will see shortly.

The Opportunity, Growth, and Security (OGS) Initiative. This is the caveat. This proposal, totaling about $56 billion, is a wish list of programs that the White House would probably have included in their budget if Congress hadn't imposed its spending cap. Of this total, NASA programs account for approximately $900 million. The White House says that this whole fund could be paid for by closing a variety of tax loopholes, which means this has little chance of passing our current Congress. That doesn't mean that none of the programs contained within will get funded, but they are more tenuous than specific requests in the budget.

Ok, let's get into some details.

Planetary Exploration

Many regular readers know that The Planetary Society has been fighting to reverse cuts to NASA's Planetary Science Division, which manages all robotic probes to destinations within the solar system. Historically the division has received about $1.5 billion per year, but that was cut back in 2013 and we've been working to restore that for the past few years.

The White House requests $1.28 billion for Planetary Science in 2015, an increase over last year's White House request, but still $65 million below the level approved by Congress in 2014. This represents a cut, but less of a cut, so I take that as a positive.

The Europa Clipper Early Spacecraft Concept Art
The Europa Clipper Early Spacecraft Concept Art The Europa Clipper spacecraft flies over the surface of Europa in this conceptual rendering, released early in the missions design phase.Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Michael Carroll

The big news in Planetary Science is that the White House and NASA are taking a tentative step towards Europa, and adding in funding for formulation studies for a Europa mission targeted for sometime in the 2020s. This is great news! A mission to Europa is of very high scientific priority, and very strongly supported by The Planetary Society as well.

But don't get too excited. During today's press briefing, NASA Administrator Bolden avoided answering any questions about the scale or timeline of a Europa mission. NASA CFO Beth Robinson was willing to say "mid-2020s" but not much beyond that. This does not sound like an agency willing to commit to a flagship-class mission like the Europa Clipper. And $15 million, which NASA is requesting, is not enough to build *any* mission, and, after studying various Europa mission concepts for about 15 years, I'm not sure what's left to consider. A lot of detail remains to be worked out here, so we need to make sure this small spark grows into a full-blown mission of exploration. I'm glad that NASA has acknowledged that a Europa mission is worthwhile, we just need to make sure they follow through with it.

Update 3/05/14: NASA Administrator Bolden has stated that NASA wants a sub-$1B "New Frontiers" class mission to Europa.

Extended mission funding is mixed. It sounds like Cassini, Curiosity, and most other planetary missions will continue for 2015, at least. But continued operations of MER Opportunity and LRO are not included in the request but in the supplemental wish list I described above. Yikes. Happy 10th birthday, Opportunity! If Congress doesn't add in additional funding, this could be the last year for both for both of those missions.

Mars 2020 gets continued support, but we don't know how much yet. This is an extremely important mission and returning samples of Mars to the Earth is rated very highly by the scientific community. The budget for this mission is tight and the funding profile as initially proposed a little wonky, so we need to follow-up to make sure that the program is getting the money it needs to stay on track. We'll have more data within a week, it seems.

Artist's Concept of Mars 2020 Rover, Annotated
Artist's Concept of Mars 2020 Rover, Annotated Planning for NASA's 2020 Mars rover envisions a basic structure that capitalizes on re-using the design and engineering work done for the NASA rover Curiosity, which landed on Mars in 2012, but with new science instruments selected through competition for accomplishing different science objectives with the 2020 mission.Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech

NASA is committed to a Discovery mission starting in FY15. We heard that NASA is committed to increasing the cadence of these smaller, cost-capped missions that are crucial to our industrial base and key to exploring major science questions around the solar system. But we need more detail on how hard they're going to work to ensure more missions like Dawn, GRAIL, Kepler, and MESSENGER.

Plutonium-238 production is fully-funded. The budget includes funding to pay the Department of Energy to maintain its Pu-238 and Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) infrastructure, as well as continue work on new production at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. This is crucial to future planetary exploration missions, so I am are very happy to see this.


Astrophysics takes a hit in this request, coming in at $63 million below last year's request. Most of this come from mothballing the SOFIA infrared observatory, which had just begun full science operations this year. That's a tough one for many in the astrophysics community, as there is no good replacement for mid-IR astronomy until JWST. Operations for this telescope were unusually expensive, around $85 million per year, which is the second highest at NASA behind the Hubble Space Telescope.

I want to note that there is a lot yet to happen with SOFIA. The German space agency, DLR, is a major investor in this project and could step in to help fund the telescope. Also, the proposal isn't to destroy the equipment, but to keep it in storage. If the worst happens, SOFIA could theoretically be resurrected when budgets improve.

The good news about astrophysics is they begin their own formulation studies on WFIRST, on a scale comparable to the meager investment in a Europa mission.

Keck ARM concept
Keck ARM concept The original Asteroid Redirect Mission concept, as envisioned by the Keck Institute, uses a large capture bag to enclose a small asteroid. NASA has since opted for a claw mechanism that would pluck a small boulder off the surface of a larger asteroid.Image: Rick Sternbach / Keck Institute for Space Studies

Asteroid Redirect Mission

NASA proposes to spend $133 million in service of its Asteroid Redirect Mission concept. This is on the same scale as last year, and is divided throughout the agency. $20 million of this is included in continued funding for near-Earth object searches (in the Planetary Science Division), an unambiguously good investment to any thinking human being.

But the strange thing to me, at least, is that we still don't know how much this mission is going to cost. Update: Maybe we do? See my note below. How could NASA spend a year with ARM as its major initiative and still not know how much it's going to cost or what, exactly, the capture mission is going to look like? I ask this earnestly. Update: I still have not received a satisfactory answer to this question.

The projected five year budgets for NASA don't seem to increase to a level necessary to build an asteroid capture spacecraft, but we don't have the detailed breakdowns, so who knows. Update: I've been told that the cost *is* included in the budget projections, and should come in around $1.5 billion. Still no word on exactly where within NASA will pay for this. So I'm eager to delve into this when NASA releases its full budget request in a few days. The ARM's proposal last year led to some very mixed opinions in Congress and the scientific community, so I would have expected NASA to come out swinging with detailed mission plans or at least a clear direction. I didn't see either of those things.


Last year, the White House proposed consolidating nearly all education and public outreach programs to external agencies. It's difficult to suss out exactly what's happening in this budget request, since we still don't have the detailed breakdown. There may be some consolidation, but internal to NASA. We'll have to wait for more information to be sure.

One thing we do know is that the budget for NASA's Education division is cut considerably, down to $89 million from the $116 million that Congress approved in 2014. I am reasonably confident that Congress will restore this number to some degree, if history is any guide.

The Other Stuff

Other major projects like the James Webb Space Telescope, the Space Launch System, Orion crew capsule, Commercial Crew, and the ISS continue on as planned; there is not much to say about the funding on any of these projects. Proponents of Commercial Crew may be able to make a stronger case for full-funding this year in light of the recent U.S.-Russian political breakdown.

Overall Impressions

I'm mixed. I'm happy that NASA is finally fighting for a small bump for its immensely popular and successful planetary exploration program, including the acknowledgement that Europa just might actually be a compelling destination, but it's the first small step of many that need to come. Our current golden age of planetary exploration is the result of funding decisions made over a decade ago. The decisions NASA and Congress (and you!) make now will impact us 5 - 10 years from now, when we may come to realize just how much we've lost. Even with these small steps, we're looking at a significant drop of active missions, from something like a dozen now to less than half of that in the 2020s. That is not a legacy I think anyone wants to have, particularly at the White House.

NASA's overall budget continues to get chipped away. Analysts were worried that a flat NASA budget at $17.7 billion would be difficult to maintain given NASA's commitments. Now we're over $200 million less than that. SOFIA is the most recent casualty of this slow decline.

But, as I said, many things are pointing in the right direction. The crucial part comes now, as the Society revs up its advocacy activities. Remember, this is just the budget request. Congress will now take the request as its starting point and add or subtract various items. We have a few months as this process moves forward, and NASA should be providing more information within a few days regarding exact program breakdowns.

But if you're disappointed about NASA's total budget, or the mothballing of SOFIA, or the slow-step towards Europa, don't just complain about it. Complain to your congressional representatives! It makes a difference.

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