Planetary Scientists Sharpening Their Pencils

WASHINGTON, D.C.—With NASA mired in budgetary woes, scientists this week gathered here at the National Academy of Sciences to begin planning the next decade’s missions to the solar system. The steering group for the next planetary science decadal survey—a prioritized list of recommended missions categorized by cost—heard how dire space science’s situation is at NASA. And they were reminded of the previous decadal survey’s spotty record estimating costs. But this new group—headed by Steven Squyres of Cornell University and Mars rover fame—is already looking to avoid any fiscal fiascos this time around.

At the meeting, which wrapped up yesterday, NASA Associate Administrator Edward Weiler warned that shrinkage of NASA’s planetary budget from $3 billion to $1.5 billion in the past 4 years means that “we no longer have a viable Mars program.” He added that the current budget “will not support a 2020 mission to Europa,” a proposal that recently won a head-to-head competition for the next major mission to the outer planets. Weiler then announced an unprecedented agreement with the European Space Agency to conduct a joint program of Mars missions. It would extend to a robotic trip to return samples from Mars in the 2020s, but that still wouldn’t bail out planetary science as a whole, he cautioned.

Weiler also reminded the committee how the cost of a major mission recommended in the 2003 planetary decadal survey—the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL)—had “almost doubled” from the survey’s initial estimate. That committee vaguely described MSL as a science mission to the surface of Mars that would also demonstrate new technology for sample return. It fell in the survey’s medium-cost category of less than $650 million. By the time NASA approved the mission, it had grown in mass, instrumentation, and ambition with an estimated cost of $1.6 billion and a launch date of 2009. Now it will not be launched until 2011 at a cost of $2.3 billion.

To help avoid such cost overruns, Squyres said, the survey committee would for the first time hire an outside contractor to vet mission cost estimates made by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), its Goddard Space Flight Center, and Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory. At the meeting, Gregg Vane of JPL also cautioned that the three centers making the estimates had better be using the same approaches traditionally used only at later stages of mission development. And the approaches should be uniform across the three, he said.

With strict, explicit procedures in place early on, Vane said, at least committee members would know just how well-developed each mission concept is. That would let them avoid picking a mission that had an appealingly low cost because it wasn’t yet fully fleshed out. In private, Squyres seemed open to such an approach once the outside contractor is chosen, which should be in August. Then let the competition begin.