Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Honesty is the Best Policy

“Save Our Science”

That's the banner headline on a Planetary Society web page that for months has urged members to “contact politicians and staffers at the national budget agency to express their support.”

In mid-October, Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye (also known as, “The Science Guy”) posted a video on YouTube urging people to write the President directly. Nye said:

Our people in Washington have studied the situation, and the next step, the key step, is to write to the President himself.


You'd think that sinister forces were gathering to force us back into the caves.

But let's take a moment to look at reality.

Click here to see the proposed Fiscal Year 2013 budget for Planetary Science. The bottom-line total? $1.2 billion, a decrease of about $300 million from FY12.

Most of the reduction, about $225 million, was due to the cancellation of U.S. participation in the ExoMars program. NASA used the savings to help fund the James Webb Space Telescope, which is based at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

ExoMars was a casualty of Congressional warfare. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) is chairwoman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA appropriations. Goddard is in Mikulski's state, so she fiercely protects it as pork for her constituents despite mass cost overruns and mismanagement.

Presidents submit a proposed annual budget, but it's up to Congress to pass a final budget and then separately appropriate the funding for approved projects. The President gets no say, unless he vetoes the budget bill; NASA typically is lumped in with one omnibus bill that covers most non-defense agencies. No President is going to veto much of the federal budget over one line-item.

The message came loud and clear from the Senate Appropriations Committee — JWST is a priority, everything else is secondary.

If the science justifying ExoMars is so critical, fear not, because ExoMars lives.

Last month, the European Space Agency and Russia announced a joint agreement to do ExoMars in 2016 and 2018. That leaves the United States to focus on completing JWST.

But if you read the hysteria coming out of The Planetary Society, you'd think that the entire Planetary Science program had been cancelled.

What bothers me about this rhetoric is that The Planetary Society makes it sound like they're owed a certain amount of money for their pet programs, without having to justify them or be accountable when these programs go way over-budget and fall years behind schedule.

The Webb telescope is a recent classic example. JWST was the subject of a scathing review, issued in October 2010. To quote from the Executive Summary:

The estimate to complete the JWST Project at Confirmation was understated for two reasons. First, the budget presented by the Project at Confirmation was flawed because it was not based upon a current bottoms-up estimate and did not include the known threats. As a result of poor program and cost control practices, the Project failed to develop a reasonable cost and schedule baseline.

Second, the reserves provided were too low because they were established against a baseline budget that was too low, and in addition, because of budget constraints, were too low in the year of Confirmation and the year following (less than 20%) the two highest expenditure years. Leadership at Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) and NASA Headquarters failed to independently analyze the JWST Project’s performance and recognize the flawed baseline.

If programs like JWST are badly managed but survive because they have constituencies to protect them, then where is the incentive for that program to deliver on time and on budget?

In the real world, successful businesses operate based on finite resources. Management defines priorities and budgets for them. Priorities must be justified. If a manager wants more money for a project, then the money has to come from somewhere — either budget cuts or by raising revenue.

But we don't hear any of this coming from The Planetary Society. They want their programs, they want someone else to pay for them, so you should write the President NOW to demand it happen. And while you're at it, make some hysterical baseless accusations just to show you really mean it.

I'm all for exploring the solar system, human and robotic. But I also would expect that I be asked to identify where the funding would come from, and why it's more important than the programs that would be defunded. Equally important, I should expect to be questioned about why NASA should do this when it's failed time and again to deliver on-time and on-budget.

(An excellent read on the subject is this 2010 publication by the National Academies called, Controlling Cost Growth of NASA Earth and Space Science Missions.)

I'd like to see The Planetary Society support an effort to use the successful competition approach pioneered with commercial cargo and crew. Congress isn't a big fan of “NewSpace” because it hasn't figured out a way to control the pork. But if it brings down the cost, and helps assure the program delivers on schedule, then The Planetary Society should support it.

I'm sure Mr. Nye and his members have little interest in my opinion, but if asked my opinion is that instead of trying to frighten people, take a positive approach and explain to Congress what should be our nation's space priorities and why. What's more important — JWST or ExoMars? I suspect Mr. Nye would say both. Congress has ruled otherwise.

So you need to deal with political reality. Carpet-bombing the White House with letters won't solve the problem. Congress controls the purse, and the pork.

One big reason NASA is such a mess these days is that Congress has reduced the agency to a grand porkfest. So find a way to liberate robotic exploration of space from Congress.

Planetary Resources, the asteroid mining company, is one example. You want Mars explored? Find a compelling economic incentive. If there isn't one ... then maybe it's not as urgent as you make it out to be.

Yes, I agree that not all exploration should be based on economic incentives. But that's the world we live in for now.

When the grand and glorious day arrives that scientists comprise the majorities in both houses of Congress, priorities will change.

1 comment:

  1. As the staff member helping to direct our advocacy efforts, I feel compelled to respond to this post.

    The decadal survey, the key document that defines the highest-priority scientific goals in the planetary science community, defines the top three missions that NASA should pursue between 2013 and 2022. These are:

    1) Mars Sample Return
    2) Jupiter/Europa Orbiter
    3) Uranus Orbiter

    as well as increasing the number of Discovery-class missions. These were the community consensus for the missions with the highest scientific importance.

    None of these will happen given the current budget. This is why we're trying to restore (and increase) funding and Save Our Science.

    Our campaign has lasted beyond just writing the President. We've pursued a strategic plan, which included:

    * mailings to Congress in the months after the budget was released. The Senate and the House each restored partial funding in the 2013 budget, but never reconciled/passed a budget. The federal government is currently running on a continuing resolution at 2012 levels, but NASA is forbidden from starting new projects during this time, and the Office of Management and Budget prevents them from spending at levels beyond the 2013 proposal, even though they technically have 2012 funding levels to work with.

    * targeted mailings to staffers at the Office and Management Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy during the early stages of the FY14 budget draft.

    * targeting the Office of the President since he can influence the OMB during the FY14 budget preparations. Appealing to Congress at this point makes no sense given they have to react to a budget request from the President in February and there is no activity on FY13 currently.

    * multiple visits to D.C. targeting Congressional staffers, legislators, White House staffers, and NASA officials to argue for support of the program.

    You bring up the non-sequitur of the James Webb Space Telescope. JWST isn't part of the Planetary Sciences division, and no one in the planetary science community had any control over the schedule, cost estimates, overruns, or technical problems. But even then, this argument is moot, since Congress did not defund Planetary Science. Congress wants to restore (at least partial) funding. It was the White House, via the OMB, who forced NASA out of ExoMars and unable to pursue any of the major objectives in the decadal survey and reduced the budget. I feel that I cannot say this enough: Congress wants planetary science funded, it's the OMB/the Administration that has proposed reducing it.

    This is the biggest funding crisis that NASA's small Planetary Science division has faced in 30 years. We have a slate of amazing missions that have already been descoped to reduce cost (MSR and the Europa Clipper mission) but still none of these can happen until minimal funding is returned. Until then, the planetary science program will limp along, and a generation from now, we'll look back on all the discoveries that could have been and wonder, why didn't we just go?