For space projects, the budget ax hovers

By Kenneth Chang / New York Times News Service

Published Apr 12, 2014 at 11:01PM

Opportunity, NASA’s resilient rover, just keeps rolling across Mars even though it landed a decade ago. It has survived mechanical malfunctions, computer glitches, tricky sand traps, ferocious dust storms and long, frigid Martian winters.

But maybe not the budget ax.

The Obama administration’s baseline budget proposal for fiscal 2015 has an ominously low number for Opportunity: $0. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, now circling the moon, also crashes to zero in the budget proposal.

This spring, they and five other long-lived robotic missions are up for what the space agency calls a “senior review” to ensure that they are still producing enough science to justify the cost of continued operations. Proposals were due Friday, with decisions coming in June.

But planetary scientists are asking whether the budget numbers suggest that NASA has already written off the two spacecraft. The other five missions are the Mars Curiosity rover, two Mars orbiters, NASA’s contribution to the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission, and Cassini, which is orbiting Saturn.

“To see Opportunity zeroed was a bit shocking and surprising,” said Steven Ruff, a research professor at Arizona State University and a member of the rover’s science team, “and it contradicted my understanding of what this senior review process was supposed to be about.”

NASA officials have been insisting to scientists that they have not come to any conclusions, saying that they had to fill in tentative budget numbers before the senior review.

“If Opportunity is on top or LRO is on top, they will be funded,” James Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference outside Houston last month. “We’ll reprogram as necessary to be able to cover these missions.”

The White House also put forth a $52 billion supplemental spending proposal that included $35 million for NASA’s planetary missions, enough to sustain Opportunity and the moon orbiter. But the money would come in large part from eliminating some tax breaks for the wealthy, and House Republicans have been cool to the idea.

At the Houston conference, Ruff asked why Opportunity had been shunted to the supplementary proposal.

“What mission would you like me to put there?” Green replied.

“Something other,” Ruff said, to laughter.

Green urged the scientists to put aside their budget worries. “I would love for the community not to worry about where the money is, and how they’re going to get it, because they need to write a proposal to get it,” he said.

But financial constraints raise the uncomfortable possibility that one or two missions will fall short even if all seven teams make compelling cases.

“I would be surprised if any of the missions were ranked very low in science,” said Casey Dreier, director of advocacy for the Planetary Society, a nonprofit organization that promotes space exploration.

Last year Opportunity cost $13.2 million to operate, and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter $8.1 million.

For each of the past three years, the administration has proposed deep cuts in planetary science and Congress has restored some of the money. For fiscal 2015, which starts Nov. 1, the Obama administration is proposing $1.3 billion, more than in the last couple of years, but less than the $1.5 billion that this part of NASA received a few years ago.

“It’s very discouraging that we have to go through this fight year after year,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., whose district includes NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which operates most of the robotic missions. Schiff wants a planetary science budget closer to $1.5 billion so NASA can also afford future robotic missions.

The tea leaves in the budget proposals can be misleading. Last year’s proposal from the administration suggested that spending for the Cassini mission would end in 2015. This year, the money reappeared in the administration’s budget, which describes Mars Curiosity and Cassini as “high-priority extended missions.”

“I will bet that Opportunity finds a way to keep going,” Dreier said of the Planetary Society.