Between a Mars rock and a hard place
Here’s a link to this morning’s story, as covered by the Washington Post: Mars Rovers survive NASA’s budget crunch. It’s apparently been quite a week around the Mars program, as NASA tries to find money to cover an overrun on MSL.
It’s an age-old story around NASA, unfortunately, and it goes something like this:
1. Mission X overruns, or has a cost threat that will cause an overrun in the near future.
2. Mission X notifies Headquarters that they need more money.
3. Since NASA Headquarters does not print money (really!), there are only a few options available to HQ managers:
- Cut other missions in development or in operations;
- Cut R&A funds;
- Postpone new mission starts; or
- Ask Congress for additional funds.
Let’s look at the options and their impacts, one by one.
The first option, to cut other missions in development, is a difficult choice. Cutting funds already programmed into the annual budget of a mission in development adds risk, and likely just moves the costs into a future fiscal year, along with additional costs due to postponement of scheduled activities. These costs are expected and often outside the control of the project, as they range from launch delay penalties to unavailability of subcontractors to overtime for the engineers assembling the hardware and preparing the software. This also adds risk, as scheduled double shifts, a risk already accepted for mission development, may turn into triple shifts, where there is always a team of engineers at work.
Cutting funds already programmed into the annual budget of an operating mission decreases the amount of science that can be done (which, generally, is a bargain at operating mission or extended mission costs, since the costs of hardware, launch vehicle, design, and assembly have already all been paid). This choice also, as in the first part of this option, may leave scientists and engineers unexpectedly unemployed.
Reducing the amount of R&A funds is never a popular choice. Taking tens of millions of dollars (the typical amount of a flight mission overrun) from grant programs that typically award $50-$150k/year to each Principal Investigator would require a disproportionately large impact on those PIs involved, whether each grant award was reduced by some percentage, program officers were directed to make no new selections in the current year, or entire programs cancelled and the money withdrawn. This is a complicated option that would be difficult to implement and would affect many researchers across the board. It should be noted that this option may affect early career researchers disproportionately, as they are more likely to be supported by grants without the security of university tenure or NASA Center support.
Postponing new mission starts is another disappointing approach to making funds suddenly available. The Astronomy Division has had to do this several times in the past few years; the most recent example is Terrestrial Planet Finder. The problem with this is, the postponed missions don’t get cheaper, and industrial costs don’t go down when a planned mission is postponed.
The last option is to ask Congress for additional funds. For many reasons, which we won’t go into today, this option must be reserved for the most dire of circumstances or, conversely, the incredible excitement of potential new missions. Getting a new mission start is incredibly hard (as, perhaps, it should be), and it would be even more so if NASA also went back to Congress to ask for routine overruns of costs of a few million dollars. While losing that amount could devastate an R&A program, it simply isn’t much, on the scale of the NASA budget, the Defense budget, or the War in Iraq. Going to Congress is not an acceptable option.
There is one more option that I didn’t mention previously, and that is asking the NASA Administrator to move money from another Directorate to the Science Mission Directorate. The big problem with this is that the door swings both ways; if the budgetary line between science and exploration at NASA were breached, any overrun in the shuttle or CEV programs could easily devour SMD R&A, operating missions, or new mission starts.
It must be a tough week at NASA. When a mission’s costs exceed its original estimates, there is no easy decision.