NASA’s planetary science budget remains under pressure
WASHINGTON — Despite a small funding increase for 2023, NASA’s planetary science programs still face financial “significant stress” that contributed to the delay of one mission and could delay the start of others.
NASA received $3.2 billion for planetary science in the fiscal year 2023 omnibus spending bill signed into law on December 29. That was about $80 million more than what the agency received for planetary science in 2022 and $40 million more than its request for 2023.
However, that increase may do little to address some of the challenges NASA has been facing with current and future missions. Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s division of planetary science, outlined those issues in presentations last month before the agency’s Planetary Science Advisory Committee and at a town hall during the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting.
Among those challenges are the ongoing impacts of the pandemic. “There have been some substantial costs to accommodate the impacts of COVID,” he told the AGU meeting. Those costs, he said, had to be absorbed within the planetary science budget.
There have also been supply chain issues for missions in development, along with inflation and higher labor rates. In addition to the higher costs, he said supply chain issues have required missions to order long-lead items earlier than expected, requiring more money ahead of schedule in the development of the project.
Glaze said that as those missions prepare for launch, they have been asking for more money for operations than anticipated. “I don’t think we’re very good at estimating what the operating costs will be,” he told the advisory committee meeting. Operations costs, he noted, are not part of the cost cap for competing planetary science missions and are therefore not refined until later in the mission.
“There is significant strain on the planetary budget,” he told the AGU town hall. “It’s been a bit brittle and brittle.”
Those problems came to a head in mid-2022 when Psyche, a Discovery-class mission to the asteroid of the same name, suffered delays in flight software testing that caused it to miss its launch window. NASA initiated an independent review that concluded that while Psyche is back on track for a launch now scheduled for October 2023, there were broader institutional issues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratorythat is developing Psyche, that had to be corrected.
As part of NASA’s response to that review, the agency said on November 4 that it would delay the launch of a Venus orbiter mission called VERITAS, which is also part of the Discovery program and is under development at the JPL. Glaze suggested that the budgetary pressures facing the planetary science program left him no choice in addressing Psyche’s problems than to delay VERITAS.
“This was not a decision that was easily reached,” he told the AGU town hall. I don’t think this is a good answer. I think it’s the least of the bad answers we could find.”
Those budget strains could also affect the implementation of the Decadal Planetary Science Survey released in April 2022. Glaze reiterated concerns he expressed in August that funding projections for planetary science fell short of the “level” budget in the decade, the smaller of the two budget profiles included in that report. While the level budget projected spending to increase to more than $3.5 billion a year by mid-decade, the FY 2023 budget proposal kept spending for planetary science at less than $3.2 billion through 2026, rising to $3.3 billion. million in 2027.
“We will continue to try to secure the funding so that we can execute what is in the decennial survey,” he told town hall. “The key takeaway from this is that there may be a slight delay in the start of some of the activities.”
As in August, he said those delays would likely affect the decade’s top-priority flagship mission, an orbiter and a Uranus probe. The science for such a mission is already well established, he said, so the near-term focus will be technical studies, including options for launching the mission after 2031, when a gravity assist from Jupiter would shorten travel time to Uranus is no longer available.