Casey DreierOct 19, 2015

Zero Dollars for 2016: Two Stalwart Planetary Missions Face a Troubling Future

In its 2016 budget request, the White House inexplicably proposed to end two active, scientifically productive planetary missions: the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. NASA’s budget requested $0 for continuing operations of both missions.

FY2016 budget request
FY2016 budget request NASA’s 2016 budget request showing the $0 request for the scientifically productive MER Opportunity rover.

Normally, this wouldn’t be a major concern. Congress has steadfastly supported these missions over the years, and intended to do so again in 2016. But these aren’t normal times in Congress. Instead of passing a budget for the year, it passed a temporary measure called a continuing resolution, or CR for short. On paper, a CR allows the government to continue spending at 2015 levels for a temporary period. In this case for two months, to December 11th.

Last year, both Opportunity and LRO were funded, so the money should be there. But it’s not as simple as that. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the internal bookkeeper of the federal government, limits federal agencies’ spending to The White House’s proposed levels when those levels are lower than the previous year’s amount. For NASA’s Planetary Science Division, which manages Opportunity and LRO, the White House proposed a cut of $78 million in 2016. So in the current CR, the Planetary Science Division is restricted to spending at levels commensurate with the cuts proposed by the White House. On paper, that means $0 for Opportunity and LRO.

Clearly, both missions have not yet been ended. So I checked in with Jim Green, the Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division to understand what’s happening with Opportunity and LRO.

“Right now they’re ok,” Green said, noting that normal operations are continuing for both missions while there is so much uncertainty in the budget. Their future becomes “complex” if Congress can’t decide on a budget by December or passes a full year’s continuing resolution, which would extend 2015 spending levels through all of 2016. As to the future of Opportunity and LRO in that scenario, “that will require a discussion between NASA and the Office of Management and Budget,” Green said.

Even if Green is given approval to continue Opportunity and LRO under a full-year CR, the money to support it will not necessarily show up. The $35 million required to operate the two missions would have to be scrounged from within the already-reduced levels provided to the Planetary Science Division, draining resources from other Mars missions, scientific research, or delaying future Discovery missions.

It’s not that Opportunity and LRO aren’t returning good science, they are. In fact, they’re returning great science. Last year, an independent review of all planetary exploration missions ranked Opportunity and LRO as some of the most promising robotic mission in terms of near-term science return and recommended that they both continue.

For now, both missions continue to collect priceless scientific data on Mars and at the Moon. But this level of budget uncertainty means a troubled future for both. The White House may have strategically assumed Congress would restore the money they zeroed out of these two popular missions, but if Congress can’t pass a budget for 2016, the termination of NASA’s only lunar presence and half of its rover fleet could be one of the many unintended consequences.

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