NASA Makes Progress Toward Science Priorities Outlined in 2013-2022 Planetary Decadal Survey

In June 2018 NASA’s Curiosity Rover used its Mast Camera, or Mastcam, to snap photos of the intensifying haziness the surface of Mars, caused by a massive dust storm. The rover is standing inside Gale Crater looking out to the crater rim. The photos span about a couple of weeks, starting with a shot of the area before the storm appeared. (Credits: NASA)

WASHINGTON (National Academies PR) – Despite significant cuts to NASA’s Planetary Science Division budget early in this decade, the space agency has made impressive progress in meeting goals outlined in the 2013-2022 planetary decadal survey by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, says a new midterm assessment from the National Academies.

The report notes that the agency met or exceeded the decadal survey’s recommendations for funding research and analysis, and for technology programs. However, NASA has not achieved the recommended timeline for New Frontiers and Discovery missions for the decade. At least one more New Frontiers mission and three Discovery missions should be selected before the end of the decade in order to achieve the schedule recommended in Vision and Voyages.
The decadal survey, Vision and Voyages for Planetary Science in the Decade 2013 – 2022, recommended a suite of planetary science flagship missions that could provide a steady stream of important new discoveries about the solar system as well as prospective mid-size missions and science, research, and technology priorities. It also included a set of decision rules on how to deal with funding shortfalls as well as possible increases.  The new report assesses progress made by NASA so far and offers recommendations for preparing for the next decadal survey.

“Since the publication of Vision and Voyages, planetary science has made many advances, including acquiring results from several highly successful missions,” said Louise Prockter, director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas, and co-chair of the committee that conducted the study and wrote the report. “This decadal survey has served the planetary science community well, justifying a plan for planetary science that has been successful in supporting research and obtaining steady funding for missions.”

NASA has begun development of two of the decadal survey’s top recommended flagship missions, the Europa Clipper, an interplanetary mission that will place a spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter in order to perform a detailed investigation of the moon Europa, and the Mars 2020 rover, which will collect samples for eventual return to Earth. However, the committee noted its concern about the aging infrastructure orbiting Mars, which is vital for communicating with the rovers on the surface. The loss of one or more of these spacecraft could make it difficult for NASA to support the return of samples from the surface of Mars.

“NASA has made a strong investment in technology that has exceeded the Vision and Voyages recommended levels,” said committee co-chair Joe Rothenberg, former NASA associate administrator for space flight, Goddard Center director, and co-chair of the committee that conducted the new study and wrote the report. “This investment has not only enabled science missions in this decade, but is providing for the long-term technology development needed for missions in the next decade, including the Mars sample return program and the exploration of planetary bodies with extreme environments.”

The committee developed recommendations for the remainder of the decade based on categories including large strategic missions, NASA’s Mars exploration program, telescopes and planetary science, and education and public outreach. Among the recommendations:

  • Continue to closely monitor the cost and schedule associated with the Europa Clipper to ensure that it remains executable within the approved life-cycle cost range.
  • Continue planning and begin implementation of NASA’s proposed “focused and rapid” architecture for returning samples from the Mars 2020 mission so as to achieve the highest priority decadal flagship-level science.
  • Reevaluate the Mars Exploration Program, which currently has only the Mars 2020 rover in its future missions queue.
  • Continue investment in development of mission-enabling technologies at 6 percent to 8 percent of the Planetary Science Division’s budget.
  • Link education and outreach activities directly to the missions that are providing the science content for those programs, working directly with mission scientists and engineers to ensure a strong connection to NASA’s mission results.

In preparation for the next decadal survey, the report recommends that NASA sponsor eight to 10 mission concept studies that include options described in the Academies report, Getting Ready for the Next Planetary Decadal Survey. Concept studies have value for the next decadal survey, enabling science objectives to be defined, the overall mission scope to be determined, and the community to begin preparing for the next decadal survey.

The mid-term study was funded by NASA. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. The National Academies operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln. For more information, visit http://national-academies.org.

  • Michael Halpern

    I wonder how things like Falcon Heavy, New Glenn and later BFR will affect Planetary science objectives, with less expensive, more capable launch vehicles what constitutes as a flagship mission will change,

  • ThomasLMatula

    They should allow NASA to catch up after the gutting Planetary Science suffered under the Obama Administration. Folks forget that President Obama even ignored Bill Nye’s appeals to not cut Planetary Science.

    http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2013/12/08/planetary_exploration_bill_nye_s_open_letter_to_president_obama.html

    “Planetary Science Deserves Special Attention Because It Is Special”
    By Phil Plait
    Dec. 8 2013 8:00 AM

    “Nye took to YouTube to record an open letter to President Obama, asking
    him to restore America’s role as a global leader of science,
    specifically solar system science.”

    It would be good to see this Administration leverage those new low cost launchers to make up the ground lost under the last Administration.

  • Michael Halpern

    One shouldn’t forget the political and economic situation of the time while no one likes budget cuts to science, sometimes they are needed, looking at the long term impacts of the Obama administration on NASA, I would say there’s a net positive. Indirectly COTS, CRS and CCDev have helped provide the tools to enable more science to be done with less, and I am not just talking about lower launch costs, but contract styles and culture shift

  • ThomasLMatula

    Sorry, but that was not the reason especially as the Obama Administration was proposing more money for SLS/Orion, ARM and Climate Research. No, the reality is that President Obama simply didn’t care about Planetary Science, something folks seem to have forgot. And let’s not forget the 33% cut to NASA’s educational programs.

  • Michael Halpern

    No the reality is that thanks to Congress, NASA budget was a political warzone.

  • ThomasLMatula

    It has been since the Apollo days, but yes, some did fight to restore some of the funding for the programs President Obama wanted cut, just as they did when President Trump cut education at NASA.

  • Michael Halpern

    And some wanted to cut programs Obama wanted funded, the way I see it, is that the Planetary Science budget was likely retaliation for underfunding COTS, CRS and CCDev

  • Vladislaw

    I always feel like Paul Harvey and telling the REST OF THE STORY with your answers. This quote from the same author Phil Plait.

    “Mind you, this budget is not set in stone. This is simply the President’s request, which then goes to Congress. Over the past few years, Obama’s request has been for increases, with Congress threatening to cut it. Now, however, this budget comes pre-cut to Congress. ”
    http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2012/02/13/white_house_asks_for_brutal_planetary_nasa_budget_cuts.html

    Well gosh if President Obama always asked for raises what happened that he proposed cuts?

    A funny thing called THE LAW republicans are ALWAYS anti deficit when a democrat is president and they forced sequestration

    “WASHINGTON — To deal with the nearly $900 million budget hit NASA will absorb if automatic spending cuts known as sequestration are allowed to take effect March 1, the U.S. space agency would slow development work on commercially operated astronaut taxis, delay or cancel space technology programs and postpone the launch of some small science missions.”

    https://www.space.com/19970-nasa-budget-sequester-impact.html

    Typical CON servative move all through the Obama terms, force cuts and then scream the president is cutting ..

  • ThomasLMatula

    LOL. Sorry, but there is ZERO evidence to support that crazy idea. BTW You do know many of the members of Congress that fought the hardest against his gutting of Planetary Science were fellow Democrats don’t you?

  • ThomasLMatula

    What happened is that he didn’t have to care anymore about having to get folks in Florida to vote for him. Remember, in his very first space policy in 2007 he proposed taking a good chunk of the money “wasted” on NASA and giving it to the Department of Education. But the potential loss of votes in Florida caused him to modify it greatly. To President Obama NASA was nothing more a way to carry Florida.

  • therealdmt

    Another interesting change, in somewhat the opposite direction, is the continuing advances in smallsats.

    Imagine the swarm of smallsats the could be launched from a BFR. Starts to boggle the mind

  • Michael Halpern

    No I consider that part of the same direction, extra payload capacity can be taken up by small sats or your mission can be delivering a constellation of orbiters, or even micro-landers. Rather then a flagship mission being defined by one or two primary spacecraft and occasionally a child spacecraft, you can define it by groups of spacecraft. Obviously there is use for larger more specialized science payloads, but they can either be less specialized or built with less focus on saving mass and/or volume in mind or both. Doesn’t mean you wouldn’t try to shave off mass and volume, to allow more payloads, just that it won’t be as mission critical.

  • Michael Halpern

    Hence why I consider the Obama administration a net positive for the space program and possibly beyond. P3s and Firm Fixed Price contracts got championed and were proven resistant to budget battles, not to mention evidenced to cost less. This has long lasting implications, way more significant than any budget boost or cut.

  • Michael Halpern

    Of course if that swarm of smallsats are going to the orbit of another plantary body, a kick stage will be needed, the greatest asset of BFR, (full reusability) is also its greatest limitation for putting stuff in orbit of other planets or going to other planets in a 1 way trip. You can make up for that by putting some payload capacity aside for such missions to accommodate a kick stage, the only time you would use any part of a bfr stack expendably is planetary defense.

  • ThomasLMatula

    You do know that the COTS program started under the Bush Administration? Same with the idea of P3. So why are you giving credit to the Obama Administration for both? Or are you saying that the budget cuts by the Obama Administration forced NASA into using them more simply as a survival option? CCP was definitely a survival move by NASA after Ares I was cut and there were no other options available to NASA except for Soyuz. This was even more true after the Obama Administration chose to burden future Administrations with the high costs ($3.5 billion+) of keeping the ISS in service.

  • Michael Halpern

    Yes I know that, but it wouldn’t have survived without continued presidential protection or the cancellation of Constellation

    Constellation would have put us farther back than we are now had it been allowed to continue and cost way more

  • ThomasLMatula

    I never saw much evidence of presidential protection for it or CCP. Indeed, he never raised a finger to protect when the Congress cut it. But you are right, after he killed Constellation and went for a new heavy lift vehicle that wouldn’t fly until he was safety out of office it was the only option left that gave any hope of NASA someday being independent of the Russian stranglehold on ISS access. Just the fig leaf needed to have folks like you praise his policies toward NASA.

  • Michael Halpern

    Ccp was loathed by people like Shelby, the only way to protect it was to ensure there was no other option

  • windbourne

    It was GOP that constantly wanted to gut CCDev and COTs. It was first W and then O that kept new space going.

    CCDev was NOT a survival move by NASA.
    O listened to what the commission said, and it was either increase real funding for NASA OR focus on new space. O/Bolden forced the focus over to new space.
    And it was CONgress that foisted the SLS on NASA, not O/Bolden.

    And how did O ‘burden’ future admins with ISS?
    By making an administrative decision that he was supposed to?
    3.5B to keep training astronauts and doing R&D is ideal way to get us to the moon.

    The REAL waste of money is not the 3.5B that goes to the ISS, but the massive billions that goes to SLS/Orion and has done NOTHING for NASA or America.

  • Michael Halpern

    10b a year on a rocket to nowhere. For over a decade is far worse

  • windbourne

    If you did not see evidence of the GOP gutting new space, esp. CCDev, then you are not reading here.
    Doug wrote about it constantly.
    The house ALWAYS pretty much gutted CCDev and anything new space.
    The senate compromised between O’s begging for increases, and the GOP house flipping the bird.

    O had nothing to do with SLS. That was CONgress that pushed that nightmare.

  • Michael Halpern

    Congress had SLS for the jobs not Obama

  • windbourne

    show me where O pushes for increases on the SLS.

  • windbourne

    nope.
    The reason was that he wanted more money to go to CCDev and ARM.
    The GOP were fighting that so he proposed cuts elsewhere.

  • Aegis Maelstrom

    Putting “Obama vs US Congress” saga aside, the report is quite depressing.

    Making it short I read it as “NASA manages to reap what it sow but actual prep work for new missions has been visibly limited vs the plans (even gutted), in other places just delayed, thus the pipeline gets half dry and NASA needs to start working on a plenty of missions ASAP to restore the workflow and ensure pace of successes in future” .

    Ofc we know what sucked these resources…

  • Michael Halpern

    He seems to only see one side of the story. Fact is in a situation where Congress was trying to oppose him at every turn, O helped foster the development of 2 new medium lift vehicle families (one of which has dethroned Soyuz), 5 orbiters (Dragon, Dragon 2, CST-100, Cygnus, Dream Chaser) all on a relative budget. Proving the evfectieffect of P3s and fixed price contracts. While i won’t give all the credit of SpaceX’s success to O, he certainly had a hand and those early CRS missions providing a certain source of income and allowing them to prove F9, had no small part in helping them get established, however if it wasn’t for their culture of continuous improvement, they wouldn’t be what they are today.