Every year, the President proposes a budget for the federal government. This massive document serves two purposes. First, it lays out the President’s proposed policies and priorities and therefore is a political document. Second, it specifies in great detail the spending needed to implement those policies for the coming year and therefore is also a budget document. Congress then takes – or ignores – both the policy and budget proposals and writes its own budget based on its policy priorities for the coming year. (Because the final budget laws must be signed by the President, he retains considerable influence over the final budget.)
The 53 pages that detail the proposed Fiscal Year 2016 NASA Planetary Science budget contains both policy and budget minutia. The policies implicit in the budget are great news for the future of planetary exploration:
- A dedicated mission to explore Europa is approved as a formal mission. (In federal budget speak, the mission gets its New Start approval.) Finally!
- The projected budgets for the mid-cost ($700M to $1B) New Frontiers and low-cost ($450M) Discovery programs show healthy increases in the projected for 2017 to 2020. If carried through in future budgets, these increases would result in several more planetary missions than was assumed in last year’s proposed budget.
As a one year, Fiscal Year 16, proposed $1.36B budget, the document asks for a top line Planetary Science Division budget that is a small 5.4% cut from the actual FY15 budget that was approved by Congress. The budget includes sufficient funds to continue all missions in development. It also includes funds to continue all missions in flight except two (more on this in a moment). Among those missions is the Cassini mission at Saturn that would be funded through its planned 2017 end of mission rather than be terminated as previous years’ budget proposals had implied.
So net, the proposed FY16 budget continues a strong program but incorporates important small cuts. For the past two years, Congress has added $80M and $85M to NASA’s proposed budgets to work on a mission to Europa. The proposed FY16 would reduce funding from the FY15 total Europa budget of $100M to $30M. The FY16 budget proposal, like the FY15 proposal, proposes to terminate the Mars Opportunity Rover and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter missions, even though their spacecraft remain healthy, for a savings of $26M.
It seems likely that Congress will ignore these proposed cuts and the final budget will have more than $30M for the Europa mission and will continue the two missions proposed for termination. Congress did so last year when a tiny Europa budget was proposed and the same two missions were proposed for termination.
(In other parts of NASA’s proposed budget, funding continues for the Solar Probe Plus mission that will launch in 2018 and repeatedly skim the top of the sun’s atmosphere. NASA would also begin pre-mission work on the WFIRST telescope that could also study exoplanets in orbit around other stars as well as conduct its primary mission to study the universe’s dark energy with an expected launch by 2020.)
For future planetary mission plans, the real news is not in the proposed FY16 budget (business as planned with the addition of formally starting work on the Europa mission) but in the projected 2017 to 2020 budgets. These projected budgets lay out the vision for NASA's road map of future missions.
To develop a mission, NASA’s managers need to keep track of both the current year budget (dollars they can actually spend) and those projected budgets. They cannot undertake a new future mission if funding is not projected to support it. While each current year’s budget is passed by Congress, projected budgets are set only by officials deep within the President’s budget office. It was the lack of projected future funding for the Europa mission in past projected budgets, for example, that prevented NASA from committing to this mission even though Congress repeatedly added significant funding that could be spent in each year.
The FY16 budget projections add a continuing stream of funding for the Europa mission while adding funding for the Discovery and New Frontiers mission programs.
While the FY16 budget gives the Europa mission its New Start, the funding ramp through 2020 is slow. The budget document doesn’t say anything about when the mission would launch or its expected total cost. (I have heard, though, that NASA concluded that a bargain basement $1B mission wouldn’t meet the scientific goals.) Based on the slow ramp (even if Congress increases it somewhat as I expect), the launch seems likely to occur in the mid-2020s. To develop a mission expected to cost somewhere around $2B based on mission concepts, annual budgets of several hundred million dollars are needed. This budget bulge would not happen until after 2020. If the eventual mission launches on the SLS rockets NASA is currently developing, flight time to Europa would be about two years versus six and a half years if launch on a commercial rocket. While the SLS seems like the obvious choice, this is an expensive system that has yet to complete development and prove itself while the commercial launchers exist today.
If the projected Europa mission ramp is slow, the projected budgets for NASA’s low-cost Discovery missions show healthy increases. For the past decade, NASA’s budgets allowed it to only select new Discovery missions every five years. Under the projected budgets, new missions could be selected every two to three years, re-creating the vigorous Discovery program that existed in the 1990s and early 2000s. NASA’s managers are currently running a competition to select the thirteenth Discovery mission. The budget documents state that the next selection would begin in FY17. (Scientists can propose Discovery missions to study any solar system object except the sun and Earth, which are covered in other NASA programs.)
The mid-cost New Frontiers program would also receive more funds under the projected budgets. While last year’s budget document did not foresee the selection of any new missions in its projected budgets, this year’s document states that the selection would begin in 2016. Given the slow ramp in projected budgets, though, the selected mission would seem likely to launch in 2022 or later. (Scientists only can propose New Frontiers missions from a pre-selected list of high priority missions developed by the last Decadal Survey that currently includes: Comet Surface Sample Return, Lunar South Pole-Aitken Basin Sample Return, Saturn Probe, Trojan Asteroid Tour and Rendezvous, and Venus In-situ Explorer.)
To return to the big picture, this is the first proposed budget for NASA’s planetary program that I’ve been excited about in some time. It addresses all the priority missions and programs identified by the scientific community in the last Decadal Survey. There is the niggling worry that seeing this program executed will require continued support by the President’s budget officials and Congress for the next decade. The FY16 budget – once Congress fixes those small proposed cuts – is a bold vision for what I believe will be an exciting decade leading to the launch of several new planetary missions.