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NSRC 2023

Cassini at Saturn
The Cassini mission, operating at Saturn since 2004, could be on the losing end of a battle for a final three years of operations if NASA’s planetary science budgets remain tight. (credit: NASA)

More missions than money

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We are living, arguably, in a golden age for space sciences. Just in the last week, for example, astronomers reported the latest extrasolar planet discoveries based on data from NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, including one finding that more than 20 percent of Sun-like stars may have planets the size of the Earth orbiting in their habitable zones (see “In search of other Earths”, The Space Review, November 4, 2013). Also last week, astronomers reported the discovery of a main belt asteroid with no fewer than six tails, potential evidence of a body undergoing rotational breakup. Go back a month and the list of developments grows even broader, from a confirmation that a class of meteorites comes from Mars to new views of Titan’s lakes to plans for the deepest observations yet of the early universe, all making use of spacecraft in Earth orbit and beyond.

“You can’t get everything back,” Allen said about shutdown-induced delays in general, “but you can compensate for some problems by changing your schedules a little bit.”

However, this golden age requires gold, in the form of funding to build, launch, and operate the spacecraft that enable these discoveries. That funding for NASA’s science programs is becoming more difficult to come by, a result of budget sequestration and shifting agency priorities as determined by the White House and Congress. That situation could force NASA to make some tough decisions next year about which of its ongoing missions it can afford to continue to operate, and which could be shut down while still on good health.

Shutdown stumbles

At the moment, NASA is recovering from last month’s partial shutdown of the federal government created when Congress failed to pass a continuing resolution to fund government operations beyond the end of 2013 fiscal year that ended September 30. The shutdown brought most NASA activities to a halt, with 97 percent of NASA’s civil servant workforce furloughed until the shutdown ended October 17.

The biggest impact of the shutdown on NASA’s astrophysics program wasn’t with the curtailed operations of spacecraft, but more terrestrial projects. Speaking to a meeting of the National Academies’ Committee on Astronomy Astrophysics on November 4, Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics program, said the shutdown terminated plans to perform long-duration high-altitude balloon flights over Antarctica. “By far and away the biggest major impact is that we’ve lost the Antarctic campaign,” he said. The shutdown took place just as the spring operating season was beginning at Antarctic research stations, delaying the transportation of personnel and equipment needed to support the balloon flights. Hertz said that even though the shutdown was over, they would not be ready to carry out the flights before upper-level winds shifted, closing the window for such flights.

The shutdown, Hertz said, also cancelled nine flights of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Observatory (SOFIA), a 747 aircraft with an infrared telescope; those flights will not be rescheduled and astronomers who lost those observations will have to submit observing proposals if they want to try again. The shutdown delayed work on the Soft X-Ray Spectrometer (SXS), an instrument NASA is building for Japan’s Astro-H mission, slated for launch in mid-2015. “We think it’s about a five-week schedule hit,” he said, when taking into account time to restart work after the shutdown ended. Because SXS is in the critical path for Astro-H, it could delay the launch of the mission, although Hertz said NASA is still in discussions with their Japanese counterparts on the effects of the delay and any potential measures to mitigate them.

In general, missions under development had to stand down their work during the shutdown, creating the potential for launch delays down the road. At a meeting Friday of the Space Studies Board in Washington, Marc Allen, deputy associate administrator in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said that the four spacecraft being built for NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission would be delayed by about a month due to the shutdown. “You can’t get everything back,” he said about shutdown-induced delays in general, “but you can compensate for some problems by changing your schedules a little bit.”

“I don’t know if sequestration is going to happen, but I worry about how astrophysics will be funded, and realize $50 million in savings, this year,” Hertz said.

Some other missions in development largely escaped the effects of the shutdown. Launch preparations for NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft were originally suspended when the shutdown started, but restored a few days later after NASA determined that the launch preparations were an essential activity, given the spacecraft’s role of serving as a communications relay for other Mars spacecraft. Workers made up the time lost and the mission remains on track for launch on November 18.

NASA’s biggest science mission under development, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), also weathered the shutdown in good shape. Contractor activities were not affected by the shutdown, Hertz said, although some tests at NASA’s Goddard and Marshall centers were put on hold during the shutdown; the tests of the telescope’s “backplane” at Marshall are on the program’s critical path. “We’re not anticipating this will change the delivery or the cost of JWST,” he said, noting there were still 14 months of schedule reserves on the program. “They’ll have to rework the schedule a little bit to accommodate this delay along the critical path.”

Sequestration and senior reviews

The delays and cancellations caused by the shutdown, though, are minor compared to the bigger fiscal issues facing NASA’s space science programs. As NASA’s overall budget is reduced, as part of overall across-the-board cuts known as sequestration, the agency could be forced in the coming months to make some hard decisions about what ongoing missions should be funded.

Hertz, in his presentation to the Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics, noted that his budget in fiscal year 2013 was cut from $659 million originally requested to $617 million in the final operating plan, after the effects of sequestration, other budgetary rescissions, and other adjustments. (JWST is funded as a separate line item from the rest of the astrophysics program, and retained its full funding of $628 million for 2013, primarily because of its status as an agency priority alongside development of exploration systems and utilization of the International Space Station.)

NASA requested $642 million for astrophysics in its fiscal year 2014 budget request, although under the current continuing resolution (CR) that funds the government through January 15, the program is operating at an annualized rate of $607 million, Hertz said. If another round of sequestration goes into effect in January, he warned the astrophysics program could be cut to about $592 million, give or take $10 million, assuming NASA overall ends up with $16.25 billion post-sequester. “That’s the kind of worst case one might imagine,” he said.

In that scenario, with astrophysics cut by about $50 million from the administration’s request, Hertz said he would be faced with some tough choices. “I don’t know if sequestration is going to happen, but I worry about how astrophysics will be funded, and realize $50 million in savings, this year,” he said.

The impact of such cuts could be felt in next year’s “senior review,” a biennial review of operating missions in the astrophysics program. The purpose of the review is to ensure that continuing missions are providing science that’s worth the expense of continuing to operate them. Every operating mission will be included in the next senior review with the exception of Hubble and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. “Those are core observatories, and there’s no question in my mind if we should continue operating them,” Hertz said. There will be separate ad hoc committees for those two observatories to see how operations of those missions can be improved, he added.

How many of NASA’s other astrophysics missions will be approved by the senior review (including Kepler, as the project weighs proposals for alternative uses of the spacecraft after the failure of two reaction wheels ended its primary exoplanet mission) will depend on funding. Hertz indicated that is there is another round of sequestration, it may not be possible to fund all of those missions, regarding of their scientific return. “If I get sequestration, we don’t have enough money to keep everything going,” he said.

NASA’s planetary science program is facing similar concerns. It, too, has a senior review of ongoing missions planned for early next year. That review will include planetary missions that have completed their primary missions, thus excluding spacecraft that have yet to reach their destinations or will still be in their primary missions, like MAVEN, the Juno mission to Jupiter, and the New Horizons mission to Pluto. In a presentation to the planetary science subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council on Tuesday, Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said that the MESSENGER Mercury orbiter would also likely be excluded from the upcoming senior review since it will be nearing the end of its mission by fiscal year 2015 as it runs out of stationkeeping fuel.

Many in the planetary science community see the upcoming senior review as something of a planetary Thunderdome for Cassini and Curiosity: both missions will enter the review, but most expect only one mission to emerge.

A major change in this senior review will be that two “flagship” missions seeking continued funding: the Cassini mission orbiting Saturn since 2004, and the Curiosity Mars rover, whose primary mission, lasting one Martian year, ends in 2014. Those missions will compete with several other Mars missions (the Mars Odyssey orbiter, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), the Opportunity rover, and NASA’s role on ESA’s Mars Express orbiter) and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter for continued funding.

That review will be particularly challenging, Green warned, because the budget for operating missions is projected to be about the same in fiscal year 2015 as in 2014, at least in the administration’s proposals. “This will be a very interesting competition,” Green said. “We have two very expensive flagship missions, Cassini and Curiosity, which are expensive to operate even in an extended mission phase, along with a lot of our other missions, which are doing tremendous science at a lower cost. So, this particular competition we’ll have to do very carefully.”

Many in the planetary science community see the upcoming senior review as something of a planetary Thunderdome for Cassini and Curiosity: both missions will enter the review, but most expect only one mission to emerge given the limited funding available. If that happens, Curiosity is expected to have the edge, since it’s been on Mars only since 2012 while Cassini has been at Saturn since 2004, and is set to end its mission regardless of the senior review outcome with a plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere in September 2017.

Those prospects have alarmed scientists involved with the mission, particularly since there are no plans for any follow-on missions to the Saturn system for the foreseeable future. “We are very concerned that the NASA out-year budget does not have a clear allocation for the Cassini Solstice Mission for the final 3 years,” stated the final report of the July meeting of the Outer Planets Asseessment Group (OPAG), an advisory group of scientists. “[T]he unique science return from the Cassini end-of-mission observations strongly warrants full funding of the final three years of the mission.”

However, despite the concerns of the OPAG members, it’s not clear that Cassini is being singled out by the agency. The NASA FY 2014 budget proposal included no funding for 2015 and beyond in the line items for most ongoing Mars missions that would be included in the senior review. The budget proposal instead includes a line item for “Mars Extended Operations” that, at $82.3 million in 2015, is less than the combined 2014 budgets of Mars Odyssey, MRO, Opportunity, Mars Express, and Curiosity ($107.3 million).

There are other factors that will further complicate NASA science programs in the next year and beyond, from a proposed restructuring of NASA’s planetary science research and analysis (R&A) programs to a decision to keep education and public outreach efforts at NASA, rather that consolidate them across the federal government as proposed when the 2014 budget proposal came out in April. (The latter development means those outreach programs will have to scrounge for funds within their various projects, since there were no funds allocated for them in the 2014 budget proposal.)

The long-term effects of budget sequestration and other fiscal constrains also remain unclear, in part because people like Hertz don’t know how long they’ll be in place. Under current law, sequestration remains in effect for ten years, but budget requests from the administration assume that alternatives to it will be found that restore budgets. “If you told me that my budget would be 10 percent low forever, I would make decisions that had out-year savings,” Hertz said. “But if you tell me that I’m down 10 percent for one year, and then it comes back the next year, which is what the administration says… I make very different choices if it’s only a one-year cut than if it’s a forever cut.”