The European Space Agency (ESA) should carefully scrutinize a science panel’s plan that, on paper at least, would enable work to begin on two new missions this year without canceling any projects already under development. The question is whether the proposal, drafted Jan. 18-19 by the Space Science Advisory Committee (SSAC), merely defers the pain, potentially making it worse in the long run.
Faced with annual budgets capped at 400 million euros ($485 million) for the next five years and a shortfall of 400 million euros, the SSAC proposed delaying the Solar Orbiter and the Laser Interferometry Space Antenna gravity wave missions in order to free up resources to begin work on two new missions. All of the other science missions on ESA’s plate would continue on their current schedule under the plan, to be presented to the ESA Science Program Committee Feb. 8.
The Science Program Committee typically rubber stamps the SSAC’s recommendations, but in this case they should take a very hard look through a skeptical lens. Nobody wants to see missions canceled, and starting new projects is a must if ESA is to infuse fresh ideas and talent into its science program.
But the SSAC proposal seems too good to be true.
There needs to be some reliable way of assessing the credibility of the cost estimates for the approved missions, which also include the BepiColombo Mercury orbiter and the Gaia star mapper, both of which would remain on schedule in the SSAC plan. This probably would entail an independent analysis — by budget and program-management experts, not scientists — of cost data provided directly by the ESA mission managers.
And since it is likely that the SSAC proposal would stretch available budgets to their absolute limits, ESA needs to make an honest evaluation of whether there are sufficient funding margins built into each program. Delays and technical difficulties are the rule in space programs, and to assume all will go smoothly and that there will be no cost growth is folly.
It would be great if the SSAC proposal is viable. If it is not, better to cancel a program now, before spending the large sums of money that would make it much harder — not to mention more wasteful — to do so down the road.
Over the longer term, ESA scientists and managers need to rethink their approach to the public and to their governments to determine why ESA’s very productive science program has such great difficulty getting funding. This is a program that has paid off with spectacular successes in recent years, but for some reason, that message does not seem to be getting across.