Monday, August 13, 2012

Will the Mars Rover Invigorate US & Canadian Space Budgets?

An example of how closely Canadian technology and expertise is embedded into the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission is provided by the August 11th, 2012 post on the website titled "NASA Rover's New Red Planet Address: Yellowknife, Mars." The article quotes Curiosity chief scientist John Grotzinger as stating the the MSL site was named in tribute to the capital of Canada's Northwest Territories, a city that has long served as the jumping-off point for geologists interested in studying North America's oldest rocks.

Canadian built technology aboard Curiosity includes the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer ( developed by a team of Canadian researchers including Ralf Gellert at the University of Guelph and others from the University of New Brunswick Planetary and Space Science Centre, the University of Western Ontario Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration and others under the direction of prime contractor MacDonald Dettwiler) plus the image sensors for the various navigation and hazard avoidance cameras (which were built in the Teledyne DALSA semiconductor foundry in Bromont Quebec).

Brock University scientist Mariek Schmidt, who is part of the team working on the latest NASA Mars mission.

As well, according to the August 11th, 2012 Toronto Post article "Can humans live on Mars? Canadian scientists looking for the answer," at least three Canadian scientists will be joining a team of 29 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories, starting in September to begin sifting through the data being provided by the rover.

Any connection to the successful and publicly popular American Mars rover should reasonably be expected to boost the fortunes of the embattled Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and the space industry in general.

Unfortunately, that's likely not going to happen. According to the August 7th, 2012 Florida Today article "NASA hopes recent successes will boost its support in Congress," space experts are concerned that:
NASA’s recent successes, remarkable as they are, don’t change the fiscal climate that is compelling President Barack Obama and Congress to constrain the size of the federal government.

If lawmakers are unable to agree on a deal to reduce the deficit cut at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years, automatic spending cuts at almost every federal program will take effect in January.
As outlined in the February 25th, 2012 post on the website "Mars Shaping Up as NASA Budget Battleground" the FY2013 NASA budget includes a 20% decrease in the planetary exploration budget, which has forced NASA to withdraw from a series of planned Mars missions with the European Space Agency (ESA) that were intended to lead eventually to returning a sample of Mars to Earth.

Although not identical, a similar situation prevails in Canada, where the current Conservative government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper remains committed to a series of long-term austerity measures and federal cutbacks (as outlined in the March 29th, 2012 Conference Board of Canada's federal budget analysis) which are designed to balance the federal budget by 2014-2015.

According to the CSA 2012 - 2013 Report on Plans and Priorities, the overall CSA budget will decrease from $388 million CDN in 2012 - 2013 to $289.1 million CDN in 2014 - 2015 with the budget for space exploration (a bucket which includes both manned and unmanned projects like the MSL) decreasing from $151.0 million CDN in 2012 - 2013 to $93.0 million CDN in 2014 - 2015.

Oddly enough, the report indicates that CSA salaries (expressed in terms of FTE's or full time equivalents) will remain at exactly the same level (687 FTE) during the entire three year period covered by the report.

Diagram of the MSL spacecraft: 1 - Cruise stage; 2 - Backshell; 3 - Descent stage (the "Sky crane"); 4 - Curiosity rover; 5 - Heat shield (4.5 m diameter); 6 - Parachute. From wikipedia.

According to the March 1st, 2012 article "GAO Summary: Cost Overruns, Schedule Delays, Ongoing Technical Problems With Mars Science Laboratory" which referenced excerpts from the March 1st, 2012 "NASA: Assessments of Selected Large-Scale Projects" report (GAO-12-207SP), the overall cost of the MSL mission is approximately $2.5 billion USD and the project costs have increased "$881 million since its original baseline in 2008, which includes an 84 percent increase in development costs."

All of which suggests that MSL is not a paragon of fiscal responsibility and its success will not likely  lead to calls for increased funding for space activities any time soon.


  1. Chuck;

    You wrote, "According to the CSA 2012 - 2013 Report on Plans and Priorities, ...CSA salaries (expressed in terms of FTE's or full time equivalents) will remain at exactly the same level (687 FTE) during the entire three year period covered by the report."

    Thanks for that link --- I've been looking for historical info on CSA staffing levels.

    If you go to that link, you'll also find previous CSA Plans and Priorities Reports going back to 2006/07. If you check the forecasts each year, against the actuals for subsequent years, you'll see pretty large discrepancies in most cases. For example, for each report here what the actual was, versus the forecast for that year from the previous year (I've also included the next two years worth of forecasts in each case, in brackets):

    2006/07: 618 vs. 690 (07/08: 687, 08/09: 687)
    2007/08: 619 vs. 709 (08/09: 704, 09/10: 701)
    2008/09: 629 vs. 724 (09/10: 722, 10/11: 722)
    2009/10: 663 vs. 711 (10/11: 704, 11/12: 698)
    2010/11: 721 vs. 721 (11/12: 722, 12/13: 704)
    2011/12: 701 vs. 710 (12/13: 710, 13/14: 710)
    2012/13: TBD vs. 687 (13/14: 687, 14/15: 687)

    (Caveat: it’s not clear that any of the numbers in these reports are *actually* “actual” results --- e.g., the 619 FTEs I show in 2007/08 as the “actual”, is from the 2008/09 report’s table detailing FTE forecasts (in section 1.8 of that report, on p.29), and is shown as the “forecast” for the *previous* year. I’m guessing this is due to the fact that it takes some time to close the year-end books, and that the next-year’s Forecast Report is compiled before the previous year’s books are closed. I’m assuming, however, by the time the 2008/09 Forecast Report was put together, they had a fairly good idea of what the actual results from 2007/08 were going to be, and that that’s what they’ve recorded here..)

    Some observations from these numbers:

    - It appears that the CSA’s internal head-count went up by about 17%, between 2006/07 and 2010/11 (from 618 to 721), but has since declined a bit (to 701), and is forecast to decline further (to 687).

    - In the earlier years the one-year-out forecasts were rather higher than the actuals. In recent years, they’ve been more predictive. (The 2010/11 actual versus forecast looks suspiciously good, both being the same to 4 decimal places, at 721.4!).

    - Out-year forecasts are obviously pretty much placeholders some years, probably reflecting uncertainty in multi-year planning in some years --- if you have no basis for making a detailed plan, the default is clearly to assume constant staffing levels.

    - Kieran

  2. Chuck;

    It's been pointed out to me (by a former CSA President) that a better source of info on actual expenditures is the CSA's annual Departmental Performance Report (DPR), which reports on what was actually spent, rather than the Plans and Priorities reports referred to above (which report on plans, with reality usually differing somewhat). The DPRs for the CSA are archived here for 2006-2010:

    and here for earlier years:

    (for the latter, look under the Departmental Performance Report heading, click on the year in question, then find and click on the Canadian Space Agency link to get to the CSA DPR report).

    FYI, here are the actual headcount numbers (in FTEs), as net expenditures (in millions of $) for CSA from 1996 through 2011, plus forecasts out to 2015:

    FY 96/97 – 392, $251M
    FY 97/98 – 344, $229M
    FY 98/99 – 324, $341M
    FY 99/00 – 377, $335M
    FY 00/01 – 419, $319M
    FY 01/02 – 461, $336M
    FY 02/03 – 524, $329M
    FY 03/04 – 550, $281M
    FY 04/05 – 573, $286M
    FY 05/06 – 596, $288M
    FY 06/07 – 609, $314M
    FY 07/08 – 604, $292M
    FY 08/09 – 620, $306M
    FY 09/10 – 663, $345M
    FY 10/11 – 693, $373M
    FY 11/12 - 701, $417M (forecast)
    FY 12/13 - 687, $388M (forecast)
    FY 13/14 - 687, $310M (forecast)
    FY 14/15 - 687, $289M (forecast)

    Note that forecasts are frequently off by quite a bit, so they should be viewed
    as being much less significant, but I’ve included them as the current
    best estimates of CSA’s expectations.

    A major factor to keep in mind in interpreting these numbers, is that the FTEs only include actual civil servants. However, prior to about 2000, due to a government-wide hiring freeze that was in place for several years, a growing number of positions at CSA were staffed by contractors, who don't show up in this head-count. Around 2000, most of these contractor positions got turned into civil service positions, which accounts for at least some of the big change in headcount around then. (I'm still trying to chase down info on how many contractor positions got converted over in that period.)

    - Kieran


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