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MSL illustration
Some fear the upcoming launch of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission may be the beginning of the end of the agency’s Mars exploration plans. (credit: NASA/JPL)

An uncertain future for solar system exploration

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In less than two weeks, an Atlas V rocket is slated to lift off from Cape Canaveral, propelling NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft towards the Red Planet. MSL—aka Curiosity—is one of the most ambitious, and expensive, Mars missions ever flown: a rover roughly the size of a Mini Cooper automobile and equipped with a suite of instruments to study Mars and learn about when it was warmer, wetter, and perhaps more hospitable to life. Its landing in August 2012 will be the capstone to what NASA calls the “Year of the Solar System”, a Martian-year-long period that includes milestones ranging from the arrival of MESSENGER at Mercury and Dawn at Vesta to the launches of Juno to Jupiter and GRAIL to the Moon.

While this is something of a golden age for planetary exploration, with a dozen active NASA planetary missions today, there is growing unease in the planetary science community about the future. There were concerns earlier this year with the release of the decadal survey of planetary science missions, which warned of a mismatch between the highest-priority missions—a Mars rover to collect samples for later return to Earth, and a Europa orbiter—and projected budgets (see “Tough decisions ahead for planetary exploration”, The Space Review, April 4, 2011). That anxiety has grown in the last few months for other reasons, including the growing cost of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and actions by the administration that suggest to some a weaker commitment to NASA’s planetary science programs. Some fear MSL may mark not yet the end of the “Year of the Solar System” but also the end of an era of planetary exploration.

ExoMars estrangement

The future of Mars exploration, beyond MSL, had been intended to be one of enhanced collaboration between NASA and ESA. The two agencies had agreed in 2009 to effectively merge NASA’s long-term Mars exploration program with ESA’s ExoMars effort. In 2016 NASA would launch a European Mars orbiter carrying some US instruments, to be followed two years later by the NASA launch of what was originally planned to be separate NASA and ESA Mars rovers, later merged into a single, jointly-developed rover that would cache samples for return to Earth on later missions. That would fulfill the mission of the Mars Astrobiology Explorer-Cacher (MAX-C) that the decadal survey identified earlier this year as the highest priority large, or flagship, planetary science mission in the next decade.

“The Europeans are as mad as hell,” said Hubbard of NASA’s decision not to launch ESA’s 2016 Mars orbiter.

There is evidence, though, that NASA may be backing out of that commitment. In September it informed ESA it would not be able to launch the 2016 European Mars orbiter as planned, forcing ESA officials to scramble to find an alternative approach, one that may have Russia become a partner by launching the orbiter on a Proton rocket (see “Recalling the Mars flagships”, The Space Review, October 24, 2011). That decision reportedly came at the behest of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which also seeks to put the brakes on a joint 2018 mission.

“The Europeans are as mad as hell,” said Scott Hubbard, former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, at a November 3 Capitol Hill forum on the future of planetary exploration jointly organized by The Mars Society and The Planetary Society. “When I talk to my European colleagues, they’re really, really upset. They feel like they’ve been swindled.”

That frustration comes after NASA and ESA had worked to lower the cost of the 2018 mission. Hubbard said the NASA cost of the mission has been reduced to $1.4 billion, more in line with a midrange New Frontiers mission. “It’s no longer a flagship-class mission,” he said, thanks to $1.2 billion provided by ESA for its role on the mission.

Hubbard believes that OMB may be misinterpreting the “decision rules” included in the planetary science decadal report on how to accommodate reduced budgets. Citing an email from someone who had met with OMB officials about the budget, MAX-C was deemed a “non-starter” by the office under current budgets even with its reduced cost, as it considers flagship missions the lowest priority of all classes of missions.

Hubbard noted that “programmatic balance”—a mix of small, medium-sized, and large missions—was a key aspect of the planetary decadal. That report, moreover, did not place flagship missions as the lowest priority. Instead, it recommended that if costs exceeded projected budgets, flagship missions should be descoped or delayed, followed by changes to the New Frontiers and Discovery programs for smaller missions.

That’s exactly what NASA has done, reducing the cost of MAX-C from its original estimate of $3.5 billion to the new estimate of $1.4 billion. “I would argue that NASA has been extremely responsive to the decadal survey and to budgetary pressure,” Hubbard said.

NASA has said little publicly about the future of its Mars exploration program and cooperation with ESA. At a news briefing last week about the upcoming MSL launch, Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars program, talked briefly about the issue. “The US and ESA realize we may have some budget concerns in the future, so ESA has approached Russia about potentially providing a launch vehicle and being involved,” he said. He declined to go into more detail because both the fiscal year 2012 budget has yet to be approved by Congress—although that may happen this week—while the 2013 budget proposal won’t be released until early next year. The subject may also come up at a hearing Tuesday on NASA’s planetary science plans by the House Science Committee.

The challenge of funding “America’s new destiny”

The uncertain future about the 2016 and 2018 Mars missions has raised broader concerns about NASA’s overall planetary exploration program. That unease got much broader public attention in an op-ed by Mars Society president Robert Zubrin in the Washington Times on October 26. In it, he claimed the administration’s 2013 budget proposal “intends to terminate NASA’s planetary exploration program” by cancelling any missions beyond the small MAVEN Mars orbiter slated for launch in 2013. In addition, Zubrin claimed some operating missions, like the Kepler space telescope, would be turned off mid-mission.

“The administration’s decision to derail planetary exploration and space astronomy is shocking and portends the destruction of the entire American space program,” Zubrin wrote. He described NASA as a “mixed bag” of programs, some of which are highly effective and others that are “wasteful, pork-driven spending.” Planetary science and astronomy fell into the former category, in Zubrin’s view. “Kill those, and what is left will be indefensible.”

“Right now the queue is empty, a situation we have not had since Sputnik,” Zubrin said. “Right now we’re not planting any seeds. No seeds, no harvest; no missions, no program.”

Some dismissed Zubrin’s op-ed as hyperbole. While there are concerns about the Mars program, ending it would not be the end of planetary exploration. In addition to MAVEN, there is the LADEE lunar mission, also slated for launch in 2013, and the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission, announced earlier this year for launch in 2016. Next year NASA will pick from among three finalists for the next low-cost Discovery-class planetary mission, also planned for a 2016 launch. Concerns about the shutdown of Kepler and other missions may also be overstated: while those missions will be subject to a NASA “senior review” in the coming months, it doesn’t mean that all—or any—of those missions will necessarily be terminated.

Zubrin defended his commentary at the Capitol Hill event earlier this month. “Right now the queue is empty, a situation we have not had since Sputnik,” he claimed. There will be the appearance of a planetary program for a number of years thanks to ongoing missions, he said, but “right now we’re not planting any seeds. No seeds, no harvest; no missions, no program.”

Zubrin also used his op-ed and his talk to defend JWST. “Webb is the core of NASA’s future,” he said. “It’s its most important single science mission.” The space telescope, he added, could be “essential” to the future of human spaceflight by providing a destination in deep space—the Earth-Sun L2 point, 1.5 million kilometers away—for potential future servicing missions.

“It’s really in grave danger, because it’s not being funded at a level that will allow it to completed in a timely fashion,” he said, noting that stretching out a program only increases its overall cost and increases the risk of its cancellation. He dismissed concerns about overruns that have pushed the telescope’s cost, including the first five years of science operations, to $8.8 billion, saying that any major program has experienced cost growth. “Hubble overran, Apollo overran, the Normandy landing overran, the Parthenon overran.”

While few doubt JWST’s capabilities, including in planetary astronomy, funding the telescope could hurt other planetary missions. In September project officials said that they needed $156 million above the original 2012 budget request for JWST, part of an additional $1.2 billion needed over the next several years to keep the program on track for a 2018 launch. Half of that money would come from the agency’s Cross-Agency Support budget, while the other half would come from the astronomy, planetary science, and heliophysics budgets. NASA hasn’t yet revealed specific cuts to science programs, and full details of the “replan” of the space telescope’s budget may have to wait until the release of the fiscal year 2013 budget proposal next February.

But if all of these programs—JWST, Mars exploration, and other planetary missions—are important, where will the funding come from to support them in an era of fiscal constraint, if not austerity? At the Mars Society/Planetary Society event this month, panelists sounded skeptical that NASA’s overall, or topline, budget could be increased. “It’s very difficult to do in this environment,” said Hubbard. He suggested looking at schedules for some large missions and “maybe you ought to stretch a few things out and redistribute some of the resources.”

“I don’t think we can increase our budget in this environment,” said Heidi Hammel, executive vice president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA). It might be different story, though, she said, if the public understood how little NASA spends. “There’s a misperception that a third of the federal budget is NASA,” she said; the actual fraction is about half a percent.

“We can’t go yet, but we desperately want to go, and we need to go, as a species,” Bell said. “This is part of America’s new destiny, to be the leader in this new age of exploration. I want to see it continue more than anything else.”

“It is, perhaps, unrealistic to talk about increasing NASA’s budget,” Zubrin said. He argued, though, that it would still be possible to conduct a “real space program” even if budgets are cut back to 2008 levels, when NASA received $17.4 billion. He said he would prioritize “mission-driven activity” like astronomy and space science. He would revamp human spaceflight, in particular the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket. “I happen to be among those who believe that heavy-lift is absolutely necessary, but I think it can be pursued far more efficiently,” he said. His solution would be to offer a fixed-price, $5-billion contract to develop a heavy-lift rocket, saving more than $10 billion over NASA’s current projections for developing the SLS through 2017.

While concerned but the budgetary dilemmas facing NASA’s planetary science programs, some at the Capitol Hill event remained optimistic about the future. Hammel said she wants her children to grow up in a strong, secure country, but also one that is a leader in technology development and space exploration. “We need to be able to find the balance in our budget to have the roads, to have the bridges, to have the education, to have the health care, but we also have to have the vision, and that’s what planetary science and astrophysics at NASA can provide to us.”

“This is an amazing time in the exploration of space,” said Jim Bell, president of The Planetary Society. “We’re on the verge of completing the initial reconnaissance of the worlds around us.” That reconnaissance, performed in large part by NASA planetary missions, is only the first step in exploration that will, he believes, ultimately involve humans. “We can’t go yet, but we desperately want to go, and we need to go, as a species,” he said. “This is part of America’s new destiny, to be the leader in this new age of exploration. I want to see it continue more than anything else.”