OMB Plans May Threaten The Future of Outer Planets Research

By Keith Cowing
November 16, 2001
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OMB is apparently trying to spark a war between the Pluto and Europa exploration communities. The net result could be a substantial change in NASA’s planned exploration of the outer solar system.

Last week the House-Senate Conference report containing direction on NASA’s budget restored life to the Pluto-Kuiper mission by putting $30 million towards mission develpoment and source selection. This undid direction by both NASA and the Administration to kill the mission due to cost growth in the Europa Orbiter mission and the drain that this was placing on NASA’s Space Science budget. This effort by Congress keeps the mission alive for the near term, however hundreds of millions will be needed to actually accomplish the mission. In the same report, Congress also imposed an overall funding limit on the Europa Orbiter of $1 billion.

The Decadal Survey Steering Group held an open session meeting on Thursday. Steve Isakowitz and another representative from OMB presented their options for missions to Europa and Pluto during a telecon. If OMB has its way (and the implication from the tone of their presentation is that it will) there would be no mission to Pluto – just one mission: to Europa. If efforts are made to try and do both, the implication from OMB is that there won’t be an outer planets exploration program. Funds not spent on these missions would be diverted to things that could be accomplished in the near term. OMB is looking for NASA and (apparently) its external advisory bodies to knuckle under and agree.

Ironically, this comes just as the planetary research community figured out how to make both the Europa and Pluto missions happen within NASA’s requested budget limits. Yet, there is some tension within the community over the fact that Congress (and NASA) seems to feel that it is OK for JPL to do the highly expensive Europa mission in house without having to openly compete (so long as the NASA Administrator makes certain certifications) – while the Pluto mission required open competition.

It is important to note that Sean O’Keefe still works at OMB – and will do so for some time to come as he awaits confirmation. One should expect that O’Keefe will maintain a consistent policy with regard to this issue once he arrives at NASA. Also, it is widely rumored that OMB’s Steve Isakowitz may be in line for the NASA Comptroller’s position which will be vacated by Mal Peterson on 3 January 2002.

Related Links

  • 7 November 2001:Victory! House-Senate Conference Approves Pluto Mission Funding, Planetary Society

    “The Administration is now faced with the choice of putting Pluto in its proposed fiscal year 2003 budget, or risking another fight with Congress next year.
    The Pluto mission was placed by Congress in the Outer Planets line item, which also includes a Europa orbiter mission. The Europa mission would be
    launched later than a Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission, but arrive earlier at its destination.”

  • 7 November 2001: VA/HUD Conference Report H. Rpt. 107-272 (NASA Excerpt)

    “9. An increase of $30,000,000 for the Pluto Kuiper Belt (PKB) mission. The conferees direct NASA to proceed with its plan for source selection, but
    recognize the launch dates may be altered due to delays in the source selection process. Funds provided should be used to initiate appropriate spacecraft
    and science instrument development as well as launch vehicle procurement. The conferees direct NASA to consolidate PKB development funds within
    the Outer Planets line beginning in fiscal year 2003.”

    “The conferees recognize the need for maintaining core capabilities at NASA centers with responsibility for space science missions and operations. As a
    result, the conferees will support permitting the Europa Orbiter (EO) mission to be sole sourced intramurally, provided that the NASA Administrator
    certifies to the Committees on Appropriations of the House and the Senate in the fiscal year 2002 operating plan that such action is essential to maintain
    said core capabilities. The conferees expect that in making any such determination, the Administrator will guarantee that there is a specific and
    demonstrable plan to ensure that sufficient core and focused program outer planetary Advanced Technology Development (ATD) funds will be
    available to extramural entities in industry and academia through full and open competition, with the five-year profile for this competition specified in
    the fiscal year 2003 budget submission. NASA should proceed with the selection of Europa science instruments as planned and shall cap the total EO
    program costs (ATD and execution of all phases A/E) at $1,000,000,000. No reduction for EO instrument support to the selected science teams should
    be made in fiscal year 2002.”

  • 28 February 2001: Highlights of 2002 NASA Funding: A Blueprint for New Beginnings
    — A Responsible Budget for America’s Priorities
    , White House

    “Space Science. To ensure successful execution of programs already underway, two projects with a very large escalation in cost, the Pluto-Kuiper
    Express and Solar Probe missions, will not be funded. To support a potential, future sprint to the planet Pluto before 2020, additional funds will be
    directed to key propulsion technology investments.”

    Background Information

  • Pluto-Kuiper Express mission, NASA JPL

  • Europa Orbiter mission, NASA JPL

  • Planetary Community Decadal Study Website

  • NRC Space Studies Board

  • Committee on Planetary and Lunar Exploration

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium: Panel Reports (2000)
  • Supporting Research and Data Analysis in NASA’s Science Programs
  • An Integrated Strategy for Planetary Sciences 1995-2010

    Earlier Stories

  • 21 December 2000: Public Wants NASA To Explore Europa, Pluto, Sky and Telescope Magazine

  • 20 December 2000: NASA Reconsiders a Mission to Pluto, SpaceRef

  • 20 December 2000: Pluto Kuiper Mission AO Announcement, Commerce Business Daily

  • 20 December 2000: NASA Seeks Proposals for Pluto Mission; Plans to Restructure Outer Planets Program, NASA PAO

  • 20 December 2000: On to Pluto? – The Planetary Society Statement

  • 27 November 2000: Letter from Michael J. Drake, Chair, Solar System Exploration Subcommittee (SSEC) to Jay Bergstralh, Office of Space Science, NASA HQ regarding the findings and recommendations of the SSEC’s recent meeting.

  • 22 September 2000: Planetary Scientists Express Major Concern Over Work Stoppage On Pluto Mission, American Astronomical Society

  • 22 September 2000: Earmarks, Rising Costs Threaten NASA Missions, Science, [summary – can be viewed for free once registered. A subscription fee is required for full access.]

  • 22 September 2000: Planetary Society Urges Congress Not to Put Pluto on Ice, press release

  • 4 August 2000: Dear Colleague Letter from NASA HQ regarding Pluto-Kuiper Express (PKE) mission

  • 28 July 2000: Don’t Cancel Mission to Pluto: The Planetary Society Begins Public Campaign

  • 30 December 1999: Pluto’s moon Charon is covered with crystalline water and ammonia Ice, SpaceRef

  • 10 September 1999: Deep Space Systems Program Including Europa Orbitor Pluto-Kuiper Express And Solar Probe, NASA Announcements of Opportunity Soliciting Proposals for Basic Research, AO: 99-OSS-04, Issued: September 10, 1999

  • SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.