Jason CallahanOct 11, 2017

American R&D Policy and the Push for Small Planetary Missions at NASA

A Presentation Delivered at the 68th IAC

In September, I presented a paper at the 68th International Astronomical Congress, the annual gathering of the world's space community. This year Adelaide, Australia hosted the event, at which the national government announced their plan to form an Australian space agency. The Planetary Society's Space Policy & Advocacy Program has been working with the Australian Embassy in Washington, D.C., to help the government determine how a new space agency could contribute to Australia's—and the world's—interests in space, and we were very excited to hear about this fantastic development.

One of the functions of our program is to conduct original research on policy-related topics involving space science and the workforce that engages in it. This post is a summary of the presentation I delivered in Adelaide based on original research sponsored by the Society.

Last year, I provided historical cost data to a curator at the National Air and Space Museum who was writing a paper on the history of the low-cost Discovery program at NASA. The curator, Dr. Michael Neufeld, went on to write an excellent journal article and a chapter in a forthcoming book on the Discovery program dealing primarily with NASA and its centers, their interactions with other White House organizations, and the actions of Congress in establishing the program. I am also interested in how the rest of the scientific community—particularly researchers housed within research universities rather than at NASA—contributed to this story.

For those not familiar with the Discovery program, I refer you to Dr. Neufeld's article or a brief (and somewhat outdated) blog post I wrote on the selection process for NASA's newest Discovery missions, Lucy and Psyche.


In 1992, NASA Administrator Dan Goldin authorized the start of a small mission program for planetary science called Discovery. The Discovery program provides NASA with a method to fund comparatively small planetary science flight missions or participation in science missions sponsored by other organizations without the necessity of approval for a new project start from Congress or the White House. The projects cannot exceed a given life cycle cost or they will be canceled under normal circumstances. NASA selects Discovery projects through a competitive process using external proposal reviewers rather than exclusively NASA employees. Anyone may submit a Discovery proposal. Under the original program guidelines, NASA proposed to fly a Discovery mission every two years, a significantly more rapid cadence of launches than had been typical for planetary science missions to that point.

The Discovery program was not the first time the planetary science community in the United States had tried to establish a small missions program. In fact, NASA previously instituted two other such programs: the Planetary Explorers program in the late 1960s and the Planetary Observers program in the early 1980s. So why did Discovery succeed when the others had not? And did the program accomplish the goals of all of its stakeholders? I want to examine the larger context in which Discovery began, in terms of NASA, the greater scientific community largely housed in academia, and the federal government. Understanding this context helps us to consider why the goals of various stakeholders often differed, sometimes significantly, and how the exogenous political and fiscal environment set the stage for the scientific community to embrace a small mission program.

NASA Budget, 1959-2013 ($M, adjusted to 2013)
NASA Budget, 1959-2013 ($M, adjusted to 2013)

The United States, NASA, and Planetary Science in the 1960s-1970s

Following the launch of Sputnik and the concomitant rise of U.S. federal spending on science and engineering in the late 1950s and early 1960s, NASA became a major focus for federal expenditure (see Figure 1) as White House leadership and the majority of Congress felt that NASA's programs were a critical national priority, particularly in the realm of science and engineering, as demonstrated by the agency's funding levels.

NASA was not the only recipient of increased federal investment in this period. Rather, the formation of NASA was part of a larger strategy focused on increasing U.S. scientific and technical capabilities. Much federal spending on research and development flowed through U.S. research universities.

Federal policies aimed at bolstering science and technology education at universities proliferated in the Space Age. Examples include the National Defense Education Act of 1958 providing federal student students pursuing college degrees in science and engineering, while the Higher Education Facilities Act of 1963 funded construction and maintenance of classrooms, laboratories, and other school facilities for universities.[1] Many researchers working on space science missions were housed within universities and received most of their support for research assistants and labs from their home institutions, and the increase in federal funding for university research helped to move planetary science from a small subset of astronomy into a full-fledged scientific discipline.[2]

In the late 1960s the United States encountered a decline in economic conditions with falling rates of productivity and high inflation, at least in part attributable to an increase in global competition from Europe and Japan. Combined with the war in Viet Nam and rising social tensions domestically, these conditions placed pressures on universities. Federal funding for students and facilities at universities decreased and costs for faculty and construction increased at the same time cash flows from endowments, donations, and investments waned.

Sample of Cold War Education Policy Affecting Universities in the United States
  • National Defense Education Act of 1958
  • Higher Education Facilities Act of 1963
  • Higher Education Act of 1965
  • Education Amendments of 1972
  • The Middle Income Assistance Act of 1978

Meanwhile, NASA's budget continued to decline through the late 1960s and early 1970s—as seen in Figure 1—while the size of planetary missions continued to increase. Many in the planetary science community became concerned by the rising cost and complexity of these large flagship missions that launched less frequently than smaller, less expensive projects. This resulted in fewer opportunities for scientists to include experiments on a spacecraft. The impact of fewer missions fell disproportionately on graduate students and early career professionals, nearly all housed at research universities, with an increasingly negative impact on the field over time. Academic researchers in space science found themselves confronted with declining resources at their home institutions just as NASA was launching fewer but larger flight projects. 

The United States, NASA, and Planetary Science in the 1980s

In the 1980s, the U.S government began to reevaluate the fundamental reasons for investing in research and development. Since the end of WWII, policymakers discussed federal funding for science and technology primarily in terms of national security. But following the poor U.S. economic performance of the 1970s and a shift in Cold War tensions from missile buildups to talks of test bans and arms limits, the urgency diminished for vast, seemingly unlimited investment in research. The sense of American technological inferiority also receded in the face of new challenges such as economic competition from Japan and increasing U.S. dependence on a global economy. Additionally, the 1980s saw the ascendancy of a political ethos valuing "smaller" government, which in effect meant smaller non-defense discretionary budgets for the federal government.

Money for R&D still flowed into academia through the DoD, with a significant boost resulting from the Strategic Defense Initiative beginning in 1983. Federal funding for civilian R&D remained relatively flat with moderate increases in a few fields such as health and medicine. The rationale for civilian R&D investment, however, shifted in tone as members of Congress began discussing funding for R&D in terms of retaining American economic competitiveness. Lawmakers enacted policies promoting innovation and civilian technologies through legislation aimed at increasing technology transfer from federal labs and universities to industry, encouraging university-industry-government partnerships, and enhancing intellectual property protections.[3]

Sample of Economic Competitiveness Policies Affecting U.S. Higher Education
  • Patent and Trademark Law Amendments Act of 1980
  • Federal Courts Improvements Act of 1982
  • Trademark Clarification Act of 1984
  • Federal Technology Transfer Act of 1988

Significant portions of this legislation, beginning with the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, freed universities to pursue commercial activities based on federally funded research and encouraged them to behave more like corporations. Prior to this, the results of research undertaken within academia and funded by the federal government became the property of the government and were generally available publically. This shift in policy allowed universities to patent, license, sell, or otherwise pursue commercial opportunities based on taxpayer-funded research.

The first result of these policy changes was a shift in many stakeholders' views on the obligation of the federal government to support higher education, or at least the extent to which the government had such an obligation. If universities were allowed to capitalize on the outcomes of research conducted at federal expense, then the government shouldn't need to subsidize universities outside of research funding to any significant degree.[4]

The second result was a rush by research universities to increase their capability to capitalize on research. Universities competed for star faculty and spent an increasing portion of their resources constructing laboratories and institutions to facilitate the most promising fields of research. The efficacy of this effort is ambiguous at best, but it is clear that the success universities have had in reaping the financial rewards of research have largely been limited to a small number of fields, particularly in biotechnology and computer and information technology. [5]

The effects of these policies on university researchers in fields that were often not readily adaptable to commercialization—fields such as space science—were gradual but significant. As federal funding for students and facilities decreased, universities shifted the burden for resource support to faculty. Researchers became increasingly responsible to find outside money to support their labs, graduate and undergraduate assistants, and even portions of their own salaries. Furthermore, universities began to take an increasing share of researchers' grant funding for overhead support.

Space Science and Planetary Science Outlays, 1959-2013 ($M, adjusted to 2013)
Space Science and Planetary Science Outlays, 1959-2013 ($M, adjusted to 2013)

In this new environment, planetary scientists at universities encountered increasing pressure to pursue external funding at a time that NASA cut spending on planetary exploration to historic lows (see Figure II). The 1980s have become known as the "lost decade" among planetary researchers due to the fact that NASA launched only two planetary missions that decade, both in 1989. Several factors led to this situation within NASA, including the decision to launch all U.S. spacecraft aboard the new space shuttles of the Space Transportation System, the massive cost overruns in developing STS, and the loss of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 that grounded the entire fleet for nearly two years.[6] Combined with an overall push by the Reagan Administration to reduce non-defense discretionary spending and an attempt to change the contract supporting the California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Laboratory from NASA to the Department of Defense,[7] these events nearly brought an end to the pursuit of planetary exploration in the United States.

Did the Discovery Program Meet Needs?

Given this situation, then, it is not surprising the planetary science community supported the idea of a small missions program at NASA, but not because it would reduce costs or increase innovation. Instead, the community saw value in a program that increased the flight rate of missions, thus providing researchers with more opportunities to participate. Being involved in a flagship-class mission was generally preferable to a small mission, but waiting for at least a decade between missions and then facing the possibility that the selected mission didn't fly to a preferred destination or didn't include instruments providing data relevant to one's field placed added pressure on researchers already facing challenges from within their home institutions.

Further, an increased flight rate would result in a more predictable stream of data, meaning that scientists who weren't involved in flight missions could still receive NASA funding through the Research and Analysis program by working on new data. Recipients of NASA R&A awards trend toward earlier career scientists, so the lack of flight missions to a particular destination, such as specific planets or moons, asteroids, comets, or other bodies in the solar system, meant that entire fields of research could lose a generation of researchers due to a dearth of data to analyze.

Finally, the slow rate of planetary flagship missions meant that NASA appointed leadership positions on the projects only to seasoned professionals. Small-class missions provided opportunities for professional growth in the field, allowing researchers to gain necessary technical experience. This in turn would provide NASA with a larger pool of talent for managing missions.

So how has the program fared in meeting these goals?

Discovery Flight Project Costs, Not Including Launch Services ($M, adjusted to 2014)
Discovery Flight Project Costs, Not Including Launch Services ($M, adjusted to 2014)

As shown in the figure above, the Discovery program has not performed well in meeting initial cost goals put forth in the early 1990s. Each successive Announcement of Opportunity has adjusted the program's requirements, and nearly every AO has increased the cost cap. The increases have been in response to community complaints that significant science cannot be accomplished at the lower cap, though some missions such as Lunar Prospector and Stardust have demonstrated such a capability. Other plausible explanations include the increased complexity of missions or number of instruments. Over time, as we learn more about the nature of the solar system, the relevant scientific questions have also become more complex, requiring different kinds of data from more complex instruments to answer them. Nevertheless, very little technological innovation occurs within the Discovery program due to the high costs of developing new technology. The nature of the Discovery cost cap generally results in the use of existing, proven technologies.

Regardless of cause, however, it's clear that Discovery missions have increased in cost, though the program has performed well by the current cost cap.

YearAnnouncment of OpportunityMissions SelectedLaunch
1994Discovery 3-4Stardust, Lunar Prospector 
1996Discovery 5-6Genesis, CONTOURMars Pathfinder, NEAR
1998Discovery 7-8Deep Impact, MESSENGERLunar Prospector
1999  Stardust
2000Discovery 9-10Dawn, Kepler 
2001  Genesis
2004Discovery 2004No SelectionMESSENGER
2005  Deep Impact
2006Discovery 11GRAIL 
2007  Dawn
2009  Kepler
2010Discovery 12InSight 
2011  GRAIL

Interestingly, what the table above shows NASA's rate of releasing Announcements of Opportunity for missions to the community has slowed over the years, as has the agency's rate of mission selection. The two are related, but it isn't a direct correlation. The slowed rate of both AO release and selection is budget driven, occasionally resulting from cost overruns in other planetary science missions. This is a major area of concern for the planetary science community, as both the Space Science Board and the NASA Advisory Council consistently rate small- and medium-class missions as a higher priority for planetary science than flagship missions. Nevertheless, the final column is interesting. The actual launch cadence of Discovery missions has been remarkably consistent over the life of the program, meaning that the scientific community's goals for Discovery have largely been met.


In conclusion, it is important to understand that national policies unrelated to space science can still have significant impact on the field. Furthermore, those effects can have unintended consequences on later policy. In this case, federal policies directed at higher education initially bolstered planetary science into a viable field, and later policies aimed at increasing economic competitiveness while reducing federal investment in higher education placed new pressures on many researchers in the field. The response from researchers was to look for increased opportunities to participate in missions and increase data flows allowing for new research grants. When NASA leadership proposed the Discovery program in an effort to reduce mission costs while promoting innovation and competition, the scientific community readily supported the move, but with different motivations. In the end, the Discovery program has largely provided the benefits sought by researchers, but the program has been somewhat less successful in attaining the goals sought by leadership.

The presentation delivered in Adelaide is an early version of a larger work, and the space policy division of The Planetary Society continues its research on issues affecting the planetary science workforce. Our goal is to use the findings of our research to inform stakeholders in Congress and the Executive branch of the U.S. government—and hopefully international partners as well—to aid in establishing more effective policies for pursuing space science and exploration in the future. Our research is made possible by the contributions of our members.

[1] Geiger, Roger L. Research and Relevant Knowledge: American Research Universities Since World War II. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

[2] Doel, Ronald E. Solar System Astronomy in America: Communities, Patronages, and Interdisciplinary Research, 1920-1960. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

[3] Slaughter, Sheila, and Gary Rhoades. Academic Capitalism and the New Economy: Markets, State, and Higher Education. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.

[4] Mirowski, Philip. Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

[5] Slaughter, Sheila, and Gary Rhoades. "The Emergence of a Competitiveness Research and Development Policy Coalition and the Commercialization of Academic Science and Technology." Science, Technology, & Human Values, Summer 1996, 21(3): 303-339.

[6] Snyder, Amy Paige. "NASA and Planetary Exploration," in John Logsdon, ed. Exploring the Unknown Volume V: Exploring the Cosmos. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2001. NASA SP-2001-4407.

[7] Westwick, Peter J. Into the Black: JPL and the American Space Program, 1976-2004. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007.

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