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Planetary scientists propose next NASA boondoggle

The decadal survey's fantasy about future budget allocations
Figure 22.2 from the decadal survey, outlining its fantasy about future
budget allocations.

Let me admit right off the bat that my headline above is a bit too cynical as well as a bit unfair. In releasing yesterday their decadal survey, outlining what they hope planetary missions NASA will do in the next decade, the planetary science community was mostly interested in recommending the planetary missions in the coming decade it thought would provide the best actual science.

The problem is that in recent decades, these decadal surveys, from both the astronomers and the planetary scientists, have evolved into documents designed to encourage a few big expensive missions, rather than a suite of many smaller probes to many different places. For examples, consider this quote from the article in Science describing yesterday’s announcement:

It was Uranus’s turn. The last decadal report, in 2011, ranked an ice giants mission third, following a set of missions to return rock samples from Mars and a visit to Europa, Jupiter’s icy moon—missions that are now underway or in development. So perhaps the survey’s biggest surprise is its recommendation for what comes after Uranus: a $4.9 billion mission to Enceladus, the tiny moon of Saturn that spews organic-rich plumes of water out of fissures in an icy cap—ready-made samples of a subsurface ocean that might host microbes.

In truth, most of the recommendations in the 2011 survey were never funded. What did get funded was the rover Perseverance, which was actually an Obama administration proposal not included in the 2011 report, and Europa Clipper, which though recommended in the 2011 survey was really pushed by Congress. Both have been very expensive, though Persevance was actually a bargain compared to what the scientists actually proposed because it was simply a twin of Curiosity, with some relatively minor changes.

Similarly, a comparable decadal survey by astronomers in 2010 ended up getting only its big projects funded, the multi-billion dollar Roman Space Telescope and the ground-based LSST telescope. Very few small and cost effective new space telescopes were proposed, or funded, or even built.

I am therefore very cynical about this new survey’s two top proposals, a mission to Uranus and an orbiter to the Saturn moon Enceladus. Both will be reshaped into many-decade, very expensive boondoggles by Congress and the Washington swamp, eating up the rest of the planetary community’s space budget so that other smaller missions will fall by the wayside.

And if you don’t believe me, consider this fact cited in the decadal survey itself and noted in the linked article:

Although the planetary science budget has grown to accommodate big missions, the scientists who advance that work have not seen the same gains, the report stresses. The share of the budget spent over the past decade on research grants has fallen from 14% in 2010 to 7.7%.

In other words, the big missions have drained money from the scientists actually doing the research.

Worse, the poison of critical race theory is strongly inserted into this survey. One entire section is dedicated to outlining ways to guarantee equal outcomes among races, which thus encourages the government to fund not the best science but to distribute grants based on race, ethnicity, and gender quotas.

Thus, this report will result in only a few big projects, generally determined solely for political ends, with favoritism in hiring and funding given to racial minorities.

What this decadal survey should have recommended as a primary goal but didn’t was for the federal government and NASA to shift money away from these big government-run planetary missions to instead fund many small missions designed by many different scientists, who would fly those missions by hiring private companies to build the probes for them. NASA would removed from the equation, except as an agency whose sole job is that of awarding funding to good projects. This would have encouraged a commercial and competitive industry capable of launching science probes to many different targets in the solar system. It would have encouraged competition, and thus innovation. It would have also gotten a lot more done more quickly, for less money.

And it would have laid the groundwork for launching those big missions more effectively and for less cost, and possibly sooner, using the innovations developed by the private competitive private sector.

This is not what was recommended however. Instead, we get another big government program, growing in size while taking ever longer to get anything accomplished. As I say, I have become very cynical about these decadal surveys. And since they are more and more run by our corrupt governmental class, I have even less reason to get excited about them.

Conscious Choice cover

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  • Jason Lewis

    I’d like to see more projects run like New Horizons and none run like the James Webb Telescope. For New Horizons, there were 4 bidders, and the team with the cheapest bid was the one with the most ambitious goals. I’d like to know more about why this team succeeded and Webb flopped horribly, repeatedly, and painfully. They should have been cancelled and made an example of. I’ve seen Alan Stern give a talk and was impressed. I don’t know how much leadership played a goal, but I’m sure that it is a component.
    “The New Horizons project cost $780.6 million. $565 million was spent on spacecraft development and launch. $215.6 million was spent on 12 years of prime mission operations. After beginning its extended mission in 2017, New Horizon’s average operations costs are $14.7 million per year, when adjusted for inflation.”

  • LocalFulff

    What I see as good in this diagram, is the increase of spending for radio isotope for power purposes. And I hope that there will be some imagination when so drastically increasing the low-budget New Frontiers program (albeit in the next year much at the expense of the Discovery program, so plus minus zero I suspect). Europa Clipper having its budget secured, it seems, is also good news in my book.

    But the extraordinary spending on a Mars sample return mission for the next of this decade worries me. And everything beyond a few years won’t happen, as usual.

    It is as if they are ignoring the creation of the Starship/Superheavy.

  • LocalFulff

    Russia test-launches ICBM from Plesetsk in the Arctics:

    I WARN you from watching videos of that totally pro-Russian user account!
    And the best propaganda is a selection of that which is true. Not making stuff up.
    Still, it is always interesting to hear what the other side has to say. Especially as they are so censored, for some strage reason. What is our regime trying to hide?

    I kind of hate-like it, not because they are totally pro-Russian, but because many of their videos are horrible to watch. Piles of bodies and such things. I personally avoid watching such stuff. Like when some guys were trying to disarm a mine,. The next scene was fire and a dead body and a mutilated guy limping away. And they a soldier walking with a shoe in his hand, because his comrade didn’t need it anymore. If you want to see the true face of modern war, then welcome!

    I want to calm you all down by saying that Ukraine is too irrelevant to be escalated to a WW3. And NATO does stand off to a certain degree. So I do sleep waftly like an angle on the clouds in my dreams tonight.

  • LocalFulff

    One of few funny video clips of that same site: Birds’ relationship with Biden and Putin, respectively. Salute to the victor!

  • Mitch S.

    LF, that last vid is funny. So the bird that pooped on Biden was one of Putin’s FSB agents!
    I suppose these years of Putin superbeing mythology is part of doing politics in Russia but I wonder if it’s gone to his head.
    Some of this Putin pumping reminds me of Chuck Norris jokes. My favorite example:

  • Mitch S.

    Back to the original topic:
    The question of big projects like Webb vs smaller/less risky ones is difficult.
    There is the ol’ “risk vs reward”. JWST does look likely to deliver great scientific rewards that a cheaper/safer project probably couldn’t.
    Still, my current opinion is that a project as risky and expensive as Webb should not be repeated, too many eggs in one fragile basket.

    But JWST so far is working splendidly so while I don’t suggest putting all the talismans and luck charms back in the drawer, I’d like to know more about how JWST was able to succeed. Have to be some interesting stories behind the scenes (how many pounds of antacids were consumed by the teams during the past year?).
    It wasn’t just luck, as Roger Penske says “Effort equals results”, there must have been incredible effort.
    Someone ought to research/write a book (isn’t the guy who wrote the Hubble book around here?!).

    I came across this vid discussing the mirror actuator tech. (Be sure to check out the comments):

    Link to the Ball paper:

  • MDN

    IMHO NASA should focus on commoditizing its various proven unique skills, abilities, and technologies in a catalog of elements mission proposals could be built upon. For instance this could include:

    1. Standardized small, medium, and large spacecraft buses that can be procured with high confidence for a known price.

    2. Standardized solar and radio isotope power supply systems, to include a known schedule to competitively allocate radio isotope units as these necessarily will come from highly regulated sources,

    3. Standardized propulsion and station keeping/orientation sub-systems suitable for a variety of mission profiles. This would include chemical and ion thrusters, reaction wheels, etc.

    4. Standard communications sub-sytems for a variety of bandwidth needs. it should be noted that this should include working with SpaceX and other global satellite internet ventures to enable the ability to seamlessly integrate Earth orbiting missions with these platforms, thus obviating the need to engineer and maintain ground station infrastructure.

    5. Standardized instrumentation packages based on our best mission proven tech. This would include cameras, spectrographs, magnetometers, mass spectrometers, gravitometers, etc. Again, presented in a manner enabling high cost and scheduling confidence.

    5. Specialty sub-systems such as cryo-coolers, cryo dewars, heat shields, sub-system heaters, remote releasable device latches, electronics shielding solutions, cabling and connector solutions, etc., etc, etc. This would address all manner of things that are trivial in principle but end up being insanely expensive because mission criticality requires essentially 100% reliability.

    6. Standardized high reliability compute and storage sub-systems with a standardized Space OS (operating system) and software libraries.

    The point is to take all of the skills and tech we’ve developed over the decades and package it for industry and academia to use to build mission proposals around, going forward, and to exploit in development when they win budgeting to insure success with high confidence. Elon Musk has clearly highlighted and demonstrated the importance of manufacturing to succeeding with anything high tech at scale., so in a nutshell the intent here is to commercialize NASA’s proven successes into off-the-shelf componentry for others to build with..

  • LocalFluff noted: “It is as if they are ignoring the creation of the Starship/Superheavy.”

    True that. Mars sample return is an incidental on a SpaceX Mars mission. Why spend billions on what a private company is on track to do much sooner?

    Almost a rhetorical question, but maybe worth a comment to an elected official.

  • Jeff Wright

    I wish you would quit using ‘boondoggle’ as atomic power will remain costly and the term ‘boondoggle’ might put the idea in peoples minds that there’s a ‘cheap’ way out-but some costs are inflexible no matter how inexpensive the launch vehicle is. Hydrogen is best for it allows longer service life.

  • Jay

    Jason Lewis,
    If you want to learn about the New Horizons project, may I suggest the book “Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto”. It does get into the politics of NASA and JPL, which really surprised me. It was amazing how APL (Applied Physics Laboratory) at John Hopkins University was able to carry out this project.

  • Jason Lewis

    Jay, thanks for the suggestion.

  • Telescopes – in spaaace! Stop the whining about satellite constellations.

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