Space agency chiefs from the U.S., Europe and Russia are setting up talks aimed at finding a way to work toward a Mars sample-return mission in the face of budget uncertainty in the U.S. that threatens to upend the joint effort worked out by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Although NASA will loft the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission as early as Nov. 25 to help find the best place to look for samples, and Congress came close to meeting NASA's full funding request for planetary science in its fiscal 2012 appropriation, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has so far withheld its endorsement of joint NASA/ESA missions in 2016 and 2018.

As a result, ESA has turned to the Russian space agency Roscosmos for possible launch of its planned Mars orbiter in the 2016 window. Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin says in principle that Russia will be glad to accommodate ESA, but details remain to be hammered out.

ESA spokesman Franco Bonacina says his agency is exploring the possibility of Russian involvement in its ExoMars program, and is considering launching the 2016 mission on a Proton rocket in the absence of a firm commitment from the U.S. In an unusual move, ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain is organizing a trilateral meeting in December with Popovkin and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden solely to discuss Russian participation in the ExoMars program, according to Bonacina.

“So far, things are going in that direction,” he says, adding that the agency does not plan to make a decision before early next year. “We are seeking the involvement of the Russians but we are not, for the time being, doing any negotiations with the Russians.”

Bonacina says ESA has until the end of January to decide whether to continue with the 2016 leg of the ExoMars mission or scrap it and press on with a joint ESA-NASA mission in 2018.

“The industrial contracts being handled now go to the end of January, so February is really the time where we have to see if we can go ahead with the mission as it is baselined or whether we have to do any kind of reshuffling or rescheduling,” he says.

The impasse upsets members of Congress with NASA oversight responsibilities, who fear “NASA will be viewed by our international partners as an unreliable, schizophrenic agency,” according to Rep. Steven M. Palazzo (R-Miss.), chairman of the House Science subcommittee on space and aeronautics. Palazzo conducted a Nov. 15 hearing on the subject.

ESA has long experience accommodating its programs to unexpected changes in U.S. space policy, dating back at least to U.S.-initiated redesigns of the International Space Station (ISS) when the orbiting laboratory was designated Space Station Freedom. And it has expensive commitments to future joint efforts, including a planned 2018 Ariane 5 launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

“Strategies to instill cost discipline on expensive missions can certainly be put into place, and we must be careful to avoid short-sighted, bureaucratic decisions that can end up dismantling a highly successful program and skilled workforce, jeopardizing U.S. leadership, and retreating from a carefully constructed international partnership,” says Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), a member of Palazzo's space subcommittee.

The subcommittee hearing came as Congress headed toward final passage of a multi-agency appropriation. Under the compromise funding measure hammered out by a House/Senate conference committee, the $17.8 billion top-line figure for NASA is $648 million less than the agency received in fiscal 2011. And NASA will receive only $406 million of the $850 million it sought for commercial spaceflight, which means the agency probably will have to obtain an exemption in anti-proliferation laws to buy more Soyuz seats from Russia for transporting its astronauts to the ISS (AW&ST Nov. 7, p. 34).

The conference committee set aside $1.2 billion for the Orion-based multi-purpose crew vehicle, and another $1.860 billion for the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS). That is $161.5 million above the administration request. Strong congressional backing for the vehicle critics call the “Senate Launch System” is also reflected in a requirement that $100 million of the funds for commercial spaceflight become available only after the NASA administrator certifies that the SLS development is under contract and under way.

Even so, the conference report funds NASA science at $5.09 billion, up $155 million from fiscal 2011, and stipulates that overruns in JWST be funded with “commensurate reductions in other programs,” according to a conference committee press release.

At the same time, the compromise legislation sets up a showdown with the White House by holding NASA to “a strict adherence to the recommendation [in the National Academy of Sciences decadal survey of planetary exploration priorities] that NASA include in a balanced program a flagship-class mission, which may be executed in cooperation with one or more international partners, if such mission can be appropriately descoped. . . .”

That “flagship mission” is a reference to the Mars sample-return effort, which was chosen as the top priority by the planetary science community for the decade 2013-22 with the caveat that it be descoped to a U.S. cost of $2.5 billion from the current $3.5 billion estimate.

To prepare for sample return while spreading the expense, Bolden and Dordain had tentatively agreed to joint exploration efforts in 2016 and 2018. But in September NASA told ESA it could not commit to the Atlas launch in 2016 because of the budget uncertainty. That cast confusion over the second part of the joint effort, which involves two rovers lofted in 2018—one European and one U.S.—to find and cache samples for return to Earth on a later mission.

Steven Squyres of Cornell University—the Mars expert who chaired the planetary science decadal survey at the National Academy of Sciences—testified that Sally Ericsson, OMB program associate director for natural resources, energy, and science, said “the administration is not ready to make such a commitment” when he asked her if the U.S. intended to follow through on the Bolden-Dordain agreement on Mars. As is typical for OMB staffers called to testify before Congress, Ericsson declined an invitation to testify before the subcommittee.

Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA headquarters, told the subcommittee that while it has not endorsed the NASA-ESA agreement, OMB also has not canceled it. As a result, NASA's planetary science bureaucracy is proceeding as though it remains in force. The outcome of the internal administration debate will not be revealed until the administration submits its fiscal 2013 NASA budget request in February 2012, says Green.

In an unrelated Senate hearing on Nov. 17, Bolden reminded a skeptical Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) that Congress and White House Budget Director Jacob Lew—Ericsson's boss—agreed in September that NASA's three highest priorities will be developing the SLS and its Orion-based multi-purpose crew vehicle, finishing and launching the JWST, and “advancing” the ISS.

“We are adjusting our budget requests now so as to support those priorities,” Boldin testified, assuring Hutchison that the SLS/Orion vehicle development will receive enough funding in the 2013 budget request to support an unpiloted first flight in 2017 and a first flight with a crew in 2021. But he acknowledged that times are tight.

“These are very difficult fiscal times, and we all agree that we have to take difficult measures,” Bolden said in response to Hutchison's questioning about future funding for SLS/Orion. “We think we have put forth a budget that will enable us to produce a program for exploration.”

The fiscal 2012 congressional appropriations language leaves open the possibility that, in keeping a “strict adherence” to the recommendations of the decadal survey Squyres headed, NASA may fall back to the second decadal priority, a Jupiter Europa Orbiter, provided its estimated $4.7 billion total cost can be lowered significantly, “with the goal of minimizing the size of the budget increase necessary to enable the mission.” That possibility gained allure with the publication last week of evidence there are “lakes” of liquid water where life might exist bubbling up to within 3 km. (1.8 mi.) of the Moon's frozen surface.

House space subcommittee members expressed frustration with what Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) termed the “damn overruns” that threaten to gut NASA's planetary and other space science programs. Just as the JWST is seriously over budget and behind schedule, agency cost estimates for SLS also are considered “optimistic” by outside analysts (AW&ST Aug. 29, p. 36).

Alan Stern, a former NASA associate administrator for science, says he believes that to maintain cost control, agency managers need to be willing to shut down programs that run over budget. And to prevent overruns in the first place, he advocates what he calls the “rule of one.”

“If you expect to control your cost and your schedule, you're generally allowed to have one miracle, in terms of technology development,” he says. “But if you throw half a dozen of them in the air, project management is at the mercy of just too many free parameters to really control it.”

That was the case with the Webb telescope, he says, and to some extent with the Mars Science Lab, which combined a large, nuclear-powered rover, the “sky-crane” approach to landing that lowers the rover from a hovering descent module, and a highly precise targeted landing (AW&ST Aug. 1, p. 38)

“I'm all for stretching, and I'm all for big breakthroughs, but I believe you can structure the missions a little smarter so you don't get in these boxes,” Stern says. “And the agency management has to actually, not just observe costs going up and go find the money, but actually do the control loop feedback which constitutes management.” (Ed. Note: This story has been updated to correct the cost figure for the Mars Science Laboratory mission to $2.5 billion.)