Spaceflight Insider

Opinion: With sequestration continuing, NASA’s science missions in limbo

Curiosity has been exploring the Red Planet since it touched down in August of 2012 as seen on Spaceflight Insider

Curiosity has been exploring the Red Planet since it touched down in August of 2012. Photo Credit: NASA / JPL / MSSS

Not a full month has passed since the end of the latest wasteful and chaotic gridlock on Washington D.C .called the ‘government shutdown’, with NASA still recovering from the effects, and new budget troubles seem to hang low on the horizon for the US space agency.

As reported by the Space Politics website last week, the director of the astrophysics division in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Dr. Paul Hertz, has voiced his concerns about the ongoing effects of sequestration on NASA’s astrophysics missions. NASA is currently funded by a continuing resolution as a result of an agreement reached between Congress and the White House that ended the recent government shutdown. If the continuing resolution is extended through next year and with the effects of the ongoing sequestration added in (which directs automatic across-the-board spending cuts to non-discretionary programs), NASA is poised to receive even less money for FY2014 than this year, if the government doesn’t reach an agreement for next year’s budget.

If that takes place, NASA astrophysics will probably receive $50 million less than the administration’s proposal for 2014. Hertz warns under this fiscal environment, difficult decisions would have to be made concerning which missions to receive funding and which not. Although the James Webb Space Telescope will not likely be affected as it is deemed an agency priority, and the Hubble and Chandra space telescopes are also similarly protected from budget cuts as well, other missions might not be viewed so favorably. An upcoming senior review, due for January next year, will review which of the missions return an adequate “return on investment” to warrant continue funding and which will be proposed for termination.

In more of the same troubling news, the director of the agency’s planetary science division, Dr. Jim Green, echoed similar concerns about NASA’s planetary missions funding. Within the same budget environment, the upcoming year’s senior review will have to decide which planetary missions that will have concluded their primary missions by then, will be subject to termination due to lack of funding.

That list contains most of NASA’s high-profile missions on Mars (Curiosity, Opportunity, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey), the Cassini mission at Saturn, and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in orbit around the Moon. All of these missions will have to compete for funding in the upcoming senior review and it’s almost certain that some will not live through it. The missions which will not be included in the review, are the ones that are either on their way (Juno, New Horizons, MAVEN) or the ones that will be reaching their end of operations anyway, like the MESSENGER mission to Mercury.

But, considering the possible loss to science and space exploration efforts, this latter exception can’t even serve as sugar-coating for the pill.


This commentary is comprised solely of the opinions of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of SpaceFlight Insider

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