Lunar Reconnaissance Observatory
Lunar Reconnaissance Observatory. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — NASA has a plan to keep the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) flying though this year and well into 2016, but the strategy hinges on a helping hand from Congress.

The Moon-mapping orbiter is one of seven planetary science missions NASA is reviewing this spring to determine whether their remaining scientific potential justifies their continued operations. The $17.5 billion budget proposal NASA sent to Congress earlier this month for 2015 includes continued funding for all of the missions except two: the 10-year-old Mars Opportunity rover and LRO, a seven-instrument spacecraft launched in 2009 to reconnoiter the Moon in advance of human lunar expeditions the Obama administration took off the table. 

NASA says it wants to keep both LRO and Opportunity in service a while longer assuming their mission-extension proposals win approval during the biannual Senior Review of Operating Missions, which is set to conclude in June. But funding for LRO and Opportunity was deliberately excluded from NASA’s core 2015 budget proposal. Instead, the agency is counting on congressional approval of a $35 million “Planetary Science Extended Mission Funding” line the White House included in President Barack Obama’s Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative, a $52 billion spending wish list that received a chilly reception from the House of Representatives’ Republican majority, dimming prospects for passage.  

A 700-page budget justification NASA sent to Congress March 11 says the $35 million included in the Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative “would allow robust funding for all extended missions that are highly ranked by the 2014 Senior Review … instead of terminating up to two missions or reducing science across many or all of them.”

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a senior member of the House Appropriations panel that funds NASA, told SpaceNews that planetary science missions should not have to rely on the president’s supplemental spending request for funding if the Senior Review deems them worthy of continuation. Schiff’s Pasadena-area congressional district is home to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA’s lead center for robotic planetary exploration.

“While I appreciate that NASA may be looking to backfill some of the extended mission funding from another source, the Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative, that is not acceptable,” Schiff said March 21 via email. “We need extended mission funding for all of our healthy spacecraft still producing valuable science, and I will be pushing to have it included in the baseline budget where it belongs.”

NASA budget hearings get underway March 27, when NASA Administrator Charles Bolden is set to testify before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. The House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee — Schiff’s venue for influencing NASA’s budget — has not announced a date for its hearing. 

Further complicating LRO’s budget outlook, the mission technically lacks the funding it requires to continue operations through Sept. 30. The budget line where the mission had been book-kept, Lunar Quest, was eliminated by Congress in 2014 as part of the omnibus spending bill signed back in January.

NASA plans to restore LRO’s funding via a reprogramming request included in a 2014 operating plan that was to be delivered to lawmakers the week of March 10, Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, told the NASA Advisory Council’s planetary science subcommittee March 12. NASA operating plans do not require formal congressional approval, but they do need buy-in from the House and Senate appropriations and authorization committees that oversee NASA.  

If LRO gets the funds Green is seeking for 2014, the orbiter’s science mission would become part of NASA’s Discovery line of small planetary science programs beginning in 2015 if the mission passes its senior review and Congress follows suit with the necessary funding — roughly $8 million, assuming mission costs have not changed much since 2013.

Launched aboard a United Launce Alliance Atlas 5 rocket in 2009 as part of a since-canceled plan to return astronauts to the lunar surface, the $500 million orbiter was built by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center to map the Moon in detail, study its radiation environment and ultimately help NASA pick a location for a crewed lunar base. That part of the mission ended in 2010, after which LRO was handed over to the Science Mission Directorate. In 2012, when its primary science mission ended, the orbiter’s science mission earned a two-year extension as part of a senior review in which it garnered high praise from scientists. 

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Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...