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Grading NASA's Solar System Exploration Program: A Midterm Report Grading NASA's Solar System Exploration Program A Midterm Report
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Grading NASA's Solar System Exploration Program: A Midterm Report FIGURE S.1 Artist’s impression of the Mars Science Laboratory entering the atmosphere of Mars in 2010. SOURCE: Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
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Grading NASA's Solar System Exploration Program: A Midterm Report Summary The Committee on Assessing the Solar System Exploration Program has reviewed NASA’s progress to date in implementing the recommendations made in the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) solar system exploration decadal survey covering the period 2003-2013, New Frontiers in the Solar System,1 and in its Mars Architecture report, Assessment of NASA’s Mars Architecture 2007-2016.2 The committee assessed NASA’s progress with respect to each individual recommendation in these two reports, assigning an academic-style grade, explaining the rationale for the grade and trend, and offering recommendations for improvement. The committee generally sought to develop recommendations in cases where it determined that the grade, the trend, or both were worrisome and that the achievement of a decadal survey recommendation would require some kind of corrective action on NASA’s part. This usually meant that the committee sought to offer a recommendation when the grade was a “C” or lower. However, the committee did offer recommendations in connection with some higher grades when it believed that minor corrective action was possible and desirable. More importantly, the committee did not offer recommendations for some of the activities given lower grades, particularly in the enabling technologies area (Chapter 6), because the committee determined that only the restoration of funding and the development of a strategic technology development program would solve these problems. The general meanings of the assigned grades are as follows: A—Achieved or exceeded the goal established in the decadal survey. B—Partially achieved the decadal goal, or made significant progress. C—Made some progress toward meeting the decadal goal, or achieved a supporting objective. D—Made little progress toward meeting the decadal goal. F—Regressed or made no progress toward meeting the decadal goal. Withdrawn—Goal or objective dropped. Incomplete—Unable to make an assessment due to lack of data, inconclusive decision process, or other factors. 1 National Research Council, New Frontiers in the Solar System: An Integrated Exploration Strategy, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2003. 2 National Research Council, Assessment of NASA’s Mars Architecture 2007-2016, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2006.
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Grading NASA's Solar System Exploration Program: A Midterm Report In addition to a grade for progress to date, for each recommendation in the two NRC reports cited above, the committee assessed the direction of progress: Trend: —Improving. Trend: —Getting worse. Trend: —No change. The committee’s results are organized in five major theme areas: (1) science goals and objectives; (2) flight missions; (3) Mars; (4) research and analysis (R&A), planetary astronomy, and mission data analysis programs; and (5) enabling technologies. In making its assessments, the committee considered the recommendations of the two reports as essentially sacrosanct and made virtually no allowances for circumstances that might have led to a less than satisfactory grade, although the committee does acknowledge that the decadal survey in particular was limited in its ability to adequately predict the cost and complexity of some missions (such as Venus in situ measurements and comet sample return). The committee did consider, in remarking on the rationale for the grade and in recommending remedial measures, what these circumstances might have been. Because this is a “midterm” assessment of progress for the decade 2003-2013, NASA still has the ability to improve these grades significantly before the next decadal survey is produced. However, the committee also notes that the situation could get considerably worse, and the current overall trend (see the section below) is alarming. Although this report mentions a number of proposed but not yet funded missions—some of which are currently under evaluation by NASA—the committee is not endorsing specific mission proposals, especially when those proposals are being made in the competitive evaluation process that NASA uses for its Discovery, Mars Scout, and New Frontiers programs. In the formal letter from NASA to the NRC’s Space Studies Board requesting this study, NASA asked for recommendations not only for NASA itself, but also for the next decadal survey starting in 2008 (and expected to last 2 years). The committee notes that during its own study, NASA undertook four studies of possible flagship missions: to Europa, Titan, the Jupiter system (focusing on Ganymede), and Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Such studies are vital to the decadal survey process and help establish a baseline of mission options for future solar system exploration plans. The committee encourages NASA to conduct such future studies. The committee also encourages NASA to allow more time and to provide more resources in support of mission concept development and cost estimation for the next decadal survey. These surveys achieve their maximum utility when informed by credible cost estimates for all potential missions, not just those in the flagship category. OVERALL SUMMARY FOR SOLAR SYSTEM EXPLORATION The committee’s overall assessment with respect to NASA’s solar system exploration program is as follows: Grade: B Trend: Halfway into the 2003-2013 decade covered by the decadal survey New Frontiers in the Solar System, NASA has made significant progress toward implementing the recommendations of the NRC’s decadal survey and Mars Architecture report. NASA’s current planetary exploration program is highly productive, carrying out exciting missions and making fundamental discoveries. However, the committee awarded a downward trend arrow to the overall planetary exploration program, concluding that current progress is unlikely to continue at the present rate and that on its current course, NASA will not be able to fulfill the recommendations of the solar system exploration decadal survey. The reasons for this conclusion include reduced investment in research, data analysis, technology development, and smaller mission programs, coupled with increasing mission costs, overruns on approved flight projects, and spiraling costs for launch vehicles. The committee weighted these areas more than others and notes that all of these are areas
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Grading NASA's Solar System Exploration Program: A Midterm Report that are required for progress to continue. The trends in these individual areas mean that future progress toward fulfilling the recommendations of the decadal survey is unlikely. NASA has also made insufficient investments in vital infrastructure such as the Deep Space Network. The committee also notes that NASA has failed to start the Europa mission, which was the highest-priority mission recommended by the decadal survey. In addition, NASA has neglected work on the Mars Sample Return mission, particularly technology development. Although the agency indicates that this situation may change, the committee notes that only significant progress can erase skepticism about the prospects in this area. Yesterday’s investments have created a momentum that will carry the solar system exploration program for a few more years before the consequences of today’s reductions become apparent. The future of the nation’s solar system exploration program as laid out in the decadal survey for 2003-2013 is in jeopardy unless NASA makes an effort to improve the situation. SUMMARY OF MAJOR THEME AREAS Following is a summary of the committee’s assessment of NASA’s Planetary Science Division program’s key programmatic elements as measured against recommendations made in the decadal survey and the Mars Architecture report. Science Questions OVERALL ASSESSMENT: Grade: B Trend: In many respects, NASA has done a good job of meeting the science goals outlined in the decadal survey. The agency should be commended for this progress. However, there is one disturbing note in this area. Only in the Mars program has there been progress toward the survey recommendation of addressing whether life exists (or did exist) beyond Earth. The Mars program has an integrated strategy for addressing this science goal. However, the funding reductions for astrobiology research and technology development have had serious and very adverse impacts on addressing this goal throughout the solar system exploration program. The science goals in the decadal survey and the committee’s assessment of NASA’s progress in addressing them to date are summarized in Table S.1. Flight Missions OVERALL ASSESSMENT: Grade: B Trend: There are some troubling indicators in the flight missions area. The launch rate for missions in all size categories is lower than envisioned in the decadal survey. This is especially true in the Discovery program. This low-cost, community-driven flight program is key to maintaining the pipeline of data returned from the solar system and is essential to the training of new mission scientists and students, ongoing efforts vital for a thriving solar system exploration community. If NASA approves the start of a Europa flagship mission and also approves two new Discovery missions and a New Frontiers mission, the committee believes that this trend will be reversed. However, the current lack of approval of a Europa flagship mission, plus the lack of new Discovery mission opportunities, has led the committee to assess the trend for flight missions as downward at this time. The committee is also concerned about various pressures on future missions, including the increasing costs of launch and the lack of technologies required to accomplish the other missions recommended in the decadal survey. The committee recognizes that the shortage of funding is the primary reason—although by no means the only reason—that the launch rate in all mission categories is lower than envisioned in the decadal survey. Increasing the launch rate would require more money, which NASA is unlikely to receive. The agency will be forced to make hard choices in this area.3 The flight missions, including Mars missions (see the discussion below), recommended in the decadal survey and NASA’s progress in implementing them to date are summarized in Table S.2. 3 The committee notes that the flight rate was also affected by policy and management choices. For instance, the expenditure of significant amounts of money on the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter mission, which was canceled because of its high price tag, prevented the effective start of a flagship mission that would have met the recommendation of the decadal survey.
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Grading NASA's Solar System Exploration Program: A Midterm Report TABLE S.1 Committee Assessment of NASA’s Progress over 5 Years (2003-2008) in Meeting Decadal Survey Science Goals Crosscutting Themes and Key Questions from Decadal Surveya Committee Assessment of Progress Gradeb Trendc The First Billion Years of Solar System History 1. What processes marked the initial stages of planet and satellite formation? B 2. How long did it take the gas giant Jupiter to form, and how was the formation of the ice giants (Uranus and Neptune) different from that of Jupiter and its gas giant sibling, Saturn? C 3. How did the impactor flux decay during the solar system’s youth, and in what way(s) did this decline influence the timing of life’s emergence on Earth? B Volatiles and Organics: The Stuff of Life 4. What is the history of volatile compounds, especially water, across the solar system? A 5. What is the nature of organic material in the solar system and how has this matter evolved? B 6. What global mechanisms affect the evolution of volatiles on planetary bodies? B The Origin and Evolution of Habitable Worlds 7. What planetary processes are responsible for generating and sustaining habitable worlds, and where are the habitable zones in the solar system? A 8. Does (or did) life exist beyond Earth? C 9. Why have the terrestrial planets differed so dramatically in their evolutions? A 10. What hazards do solar system objects present to Earth’s biosphere? B Processes: How Planetary Systems Work 11. How do the processes that shape the contemporary character of planetary bodies operate and interact? B 12. What does the solar system tell us about the development and evolution of extrasolar planetary systems, and vice versa? B aThe crosscutting themes and key questions are reprinted from National Research Council, New Frontiers in the Solar System: An Integrated Exploration Strategy, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2003, p. 3. bGrades: A, Achieved or exceeded the goal established in the decadal survey; B, Partially achieved the decadal goal, or made significant progress; C, Made some progress toward meeting the decadal goal, or achieved a supporting objective; D, Made little progress toward meeting the decadal goal; F, Regressed or made no progress toward meeting the decadal goal; Withdrawn, Goal or objective dropped; Incomplete, Unable to make an assessment due to lack of data, inconclusive decision process, or other factors. cTrends: , Improving; , Getting worse; , No change. Mars OVERALL ASSESSMENT: Grade: A Trend: NASA’s Mars Exploration Program (MEP), which was redesigned in 2000, has been highly successful to date and appears on track through the end of the current decade. Both the Mars Science Laboratory (to be launched in 2009) and a 2011 Scout mission that will be selected soon meet the recommendations of the decadal survey. A key element of the success of this program is that it is not a series of isolated missions but rather a highly integrated set of strategically designed missions, each building on the discoveries and technology of the previous missions and fitting into long-term goals to expand the understanding of the planet: whether or not it ever had or does now have life, and how Mars fits into the origin and evolution of terrestrial planets. The strategic scientific thread thus far has been to “Follow the water” on Mars: its history, amount, form, and location. A new thread is emerging: “Follow the carbon,” “Follow the organics,” or “Find the life,” which can only be accomplished if astrobiological instruments and capabilities become available. The committee assesses the Mars Exploration Program for the period 2000-2010 as meriting a grade of A. However, the recommendations of the decadal survey and other NRC Mars reviews focus on the period out to 2017 and occasionally beyond. For those years, the program has suffered from a lack of technological progress
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Grading NASA's Solar System Exploration Program: A Midterm Report TABLE S.2 Committee Assessment of NASA’s Progress over 5 Years (2003-2008) in the Area of Flight Missions and Implementation Flight Missions Recommendationa Status Committee Assessment of Progress Gradeb Trendc “Large” flagship missions “Large” flagship missions overall One per decade None yet to date. D Europa Explorer Start Europa mission Under extensive study, no new start to date. “Medium” New Frontiers missions “Medium” New Frontiers missions overall 3 or 4 per decade One launched, one in development, new AO imminent. B Kuiper Belt/Pluto Explorer Top priority New Horizons mission launched. A Jupiter Polar Orbiter with Probes Third priority JUNO orbiter selected without probes. A South Pole-Aitken Basin Sample Return Second priority Option for next AO. n.a. n.a. Comet Surface Sample Return Fifth priority Option for next AO. n.a. n.a. Venus In Situ Explorer Fourth priority Option for next AO. n.a. n.a. “Small” Discovery missions “Small” Discovery missions overall (Full missions and missions of opportunity both determined by competition.) One launch every 18 months No full mission selected in 5 years; two missions of opportunity selected. D Mars Exploration Program Mars Exploration Program overall A Mars Science Laboratory 2009 Conduct Mars Science Laboratory In development for 2009. B Mars Science and Telecom Orbiter 2013 Conduct Mars Science Orbiter Planned for 2013, science still under definition. A Mars Astrobiology Field Laboratory Option for 2016 Instrument development required. A Mars Mid-rovers Option for 2016 Option for 2016. A Mars Long-lived Lander Network Option for 2016 Option for 2016. A Mars Scouts One launch every 52 months Phoenix launch 2007, selection for 2011 imminent. A Mars Sample Return Start technology development for Mars Sample Return Progress spotty on enabling technology and no recent systematic mission planning, but recent signs that this will change. C NOTE: AO, Announcement of Opportunity; n.a., not applicable. aRecommendations summarized from National Research Council, New Frontiers in the Solar System: An Integrated Exploration Strategy, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2003; and National Research Council, Assessment of NASA’s Mars Architecture 2007-2016, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2006. bGrades: A, Achieved or exceeded the goal established in the decadal survey; B, Partially achieved the decadal goal, or made significant progress; C, Made some progress toward meeting the decadal goal, or achieved a supporting objective; D, Made little progress toward meeting the decadal goal; F, Regressed or made no progress toward meeting the decadal goal; Withdrawn, Goal or objective dropped; Incomplete, Unable to make an assessment due to lack of data, inconclusive decision process, or other factors. cTrends: , Improving; , Getting worse; , No change.
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Grading NASA's Solar System Exploration Program: A Midterm Report toward a sample return mission, lack of a commitment to a landed network mission, and indecision on the 2016 and 2018 launch opportunities. As this report was being prepared, NASA presented to the committee new tentative Mars plans that the agency designated the “Ideal Mars Next Decade Campaign.”4 This new mission queue, described in detail in Chapter 4 of the present report, appears to address most of the issues raised in the NRC reports cited, except for the landed network. The “Ideal” plan commits the Mars Exploration Program to a sample return mission “anchored in 2020” (with actual samples being returned some years later) and using the Astrobiology Field Laboratory as the prime sample collection mission. The committee is cautiously optimistic about this approach, while emphasizing that it should be subjected to rigorous community review once it has been further investigated. Extensive community involvement is a major factor in the success of the Mars Exploration Program. The committee believes that major changes in the Mars Exploration Program should not be made if they contradict what is recommended in the decadal survey; such changes would effectively render the entire decadal survey process irrelevant. The committee was also disappointed to learn that NASA was simultaneously suggesting that Mars missions after the 2011 Scout mission might be abandoned, with only the promise of a Mars Sample Return in 2020 but no clear investment or programmatic path to make it happen. At least some Mars missions during this period would have to be selected by way of the New Frontiers competition, thereby jeopardizing the strategic planning approach that has served the Mars Exploration Program and science community so well. Research and Analysis, Planetary Astronomy, Flight Mission Data Analysis OVERALL ASSESSMENT: Grade: C Trend: The committee is deeply concerned with both the grade of C and the downward trend in the area of research and analysis, planetary astronomy, and flight mission data analysis. The grade is driven by falling investment in fundamental science and two failing grades in planetary astronomy. Research and analysis funding is essentially the “seed corn” that helps to define future missions and to carry them out; serious cutbacks in this area have harmed NASA’s ability to conduct future solar system exploration. Most importantly, the committee has serious concerns about the current and projected funding levels for the research and analysis program in the Planetary Science Division, with particular concern for astrobiology, resulting in the assessment of a downward trend. The problems in planetary astronomy reflect NASA’s lack of participation in the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope and its inattention to the decadal survey recommendation regarding the ability of the James Webb Space Telescope to track moving objects in the solar system. Enabling Technologies OVERALL ASSESSMENT: Grade: D Trend: NASA’s investment portfolio in technology development at the beginning of the decadal period appeared adequate and well structured to meet the needs projected by the decadal survey. However, severe reductions in funding since that time now pose a serious risk to enabling future flight missions. Of special concern is the lack of investment in aerocapture; optical communications; spacecraft autonomy; advanced avionics; instrument miniaturization; in situ sample gathering, handling, and analysis; autonomous mobility; and ascent vehicles. In reviewing missions under consideration, or even in the active planning stages for the next 5 years and beyond, it is clear that without a considerable, sustained investment in technology development, much of the technical risk of those missions cannot be reduced to levels that would instill confidence about mission success. In addition, NASA is encouraged to proceed to implementation with its plan for upgrading and revamping the Deep Space Network and to work aggressively to deal with the impending crisis in launch vehicles brought on by the planned retirement of the Delta II rocket, the spiraling costs of launch services, and uncertainty about the future availability of appropriately sized launch vehicles for smaller missions. 4 Doug McCuistion, director, Mars Exploration Program, Planetary Science Division, Science Mission Directorate, NASA, “Mars Exploration Program Update,” presentation to the committee, Washington, D.C., August 13, 2007.
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Grading NASA's Solar System Exploration Program: A Midterm Report RECOMMENDATIONS NASA has made progress in science and flight missions, but there is a clear threat to meeting the goals outlined in the two NRC reports New Frontiers in the Solar System and Mars Architecture over the next 5 years. To repeat the committee’s primary finding: On its current course, NASA will not be able to fulfill the recommendations of the New Frontiers in the Solar System decadal survey. The committee offers the following recommendations toward redressing these problems. The committee considers its findings to be represented in the grades, trends, and explanations for each subject area. The committee developed recommendations for those subjects that it believed were in particular need of corrective action (or, in some instances, where corrective action could be applied relatively easily). Following is the complete set of committee recommendations presented chapter by chapter. In the respective chapters, these recommendations appear in the context of the full discussion. In Chapter 2, “Science” Recommendation: The next solar system exploration decadal survey should address the objectives and merits of a Neptune/Triton mission. Recommendation: NASA should return funding for the Astrobiology Science and Technology Instrument Development program and the Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets program to at least their individual Planetary Instrument Definition and Development levels. However, this should not be accomplished to the detriment of the astrobiology research and analysis program, which has already suffered large cutbacks. In Chapter 3, “Flight Missions” Recommendation: To ensure that flagship mission costs do not negatively impact missions in other cost classes, NASA should apply sufficient resources to obtain good cost estimates in the earliest phases and rigorously review mission costs before selection. Recommendation: NASA should continue studying possible flagship missions to both the inner and the outer planets as input to the next decadal study. Recommendation: NASA should select a Europa mission concept and secure a new start for the project before 2011. Recommendation: NASA should increase the rate of selection and launch of New Frontiers missions. Recommendation: The New Frontiers missions should follow a two-stage development process, starting with (1) an opportunity to submit a proposal for funding for 1 or 2 years to develop mission concepts. This earlier stage would provide for some endorsement of the best ideas so that they can attract industry and NASA center support. Such support, in turn, would (2) allow more concepts to reach a level of maturity required for considering full-scale proposal development. Recommendation: NASA should select two of the three Discovery missions currently in Phase A studies (if two are sufficiently meritorious to be selectable) and should seek to achieve an 18-month period between selections for the rest of the decade. These steps can help to restore vitality to this important program. Recommendation: NASA should return to conducting Senior Reviews once every 2 years to improve efficiency.
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Grading NASA's Solar System Exploration Program: A Midterm Report In Chapter 4, “Mars” Recommendation: NASA should begin actively planning for Mars Sample Return, including precursor missions that identify and cache well-characterized samples of both geological and biological interest. Recommendation: NASA should begin consulting various groups such as the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group and the astrobiology/exobiology research community to assess the current state of the art in laboratory analysis instruments, identify where further development would be beneficial for Mars sample analysis and biosignature detection, and verify that the needed instruments, laboratory facilities, and new researcher training will be made available as part of the sample-handling facility as soon as samples are returned. Recommendation: NASA should begin robust technology investment aimed at reducing the risk associated with the four major engineering challenges of a successful Mars Sample Return, that is, the definition, design, and development of the following: A Mars sample-receiving facility that can serve to certify the samples as safe for distribution; A sample return vehicle that can provide a high probability of successful sample return to Earth consistent with the guidelines from the NASA planetary protection officer and the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR); Autonomous on-orbit rendezvous and docking capability at Mars for sample transfer and return; and A Mars ascent vehicle that is capable of being transported to Mars, landing, and returning cached samples to Mars orbit. Recommendation: NASA should take all of the scientific, programmatic, and technical information available and make a decision on a mission queue that includes the 2016 and 2018 Mars launch opportunities. Recommendation: NASA should seek community review to carefully scrutinize the new Mars architecture and its budget implications in order to ensure that the value of the sample returned is worth the cost to the Mars Exploration Program. In Chapter 5, “Research and Analysis, Planetary Astronomy, and Flight Mission Data Analysis” Recommendation: NASA should restore an adequate funding level for astrobiology research, based on consultation with the scientific community, that will lead to the achievement of the goals of the New Frontiers in the Solar System decadal survey. NASA should provide a stable and sustainable funding environment that is adequate to ensure the vitality and continued scientific productivity of all its research and analysis programs. Recommendation: NASA should continue to work to integrate astrobiology more completely into all solar system science disciplines. Recommendation: NASA should improve the visibility of its Fellowships for Early Career Researchers program and advertise it as a postdoctoral program. NASA should also expand the participating research program areas to include origins of solar systems, as well as all appropriate space mission data analysis programs. Recommendation: NASA should establish formal contacts with the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope project. Recommendation: NASA should incorporate into the James Webb Space Telescope as quickly as possible the capability to track moving solar system objects.
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Grading NASA's Solar System Exploration Program: A Midterm Report Recommendation: NASA Announcements of Opportunity should require each space mission proposal to estimate and budget explicitly for archiving activities. Recommendation: NASA should consider encouraging principal investigators to offer archival data sets in their initial proposals so that the review panels can assess the desirability of the data sets. In Chapter 6, “Enabling Technologies” Recommendation: NASA should develop a strategic plan for technology development and infusion independent of flight programs. In addition, NASA should restore funding to its New Millennium program. Recommendation: NASA should conduct a study of the trade-offs of the cost versus risk of developing a Ka-band array system to handle the required transmissions (uplink and downlink) and determine whether optical communications are required for data delivery during the 2013-2023 time frame. Prior to the next decadal survey, NASA should present the results of such a study to the science community. Recommendation: NASA should make an assessment of which technologies will be required for Mars Sample Return and conduct an independent assessment of the analogous technology needs for the Moon, Venus, asteroids, and other targets. Recommendation: NASA should fund the Small Aperture Receive Array for the Deep Space Network and plan to replace the 70-meter antennas with arrays of small-diameter antennas by 2015.