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NASA Robs Planetary Science

Leaked document shows NASA funding other programs with planetary money

Posted by Casey Dreier

15-05-2013 17:04 CDT

Topics: Space Policy, FY2013 NASA Budget

Despite Congress rejecting cuts to NASA's Planetary Science Division in March, NASA plans to raid the restored funds for use in other projects for the remainder of this year. This is a stunning rebuke to Congress and a very rare move by NASA that continues to undercut this popular and productive program.

Just to recap: the final budget for 2013 wasn't passed until late March of this year. It provided $1.42 billion for Planetary Science, over $200 million more than the President's original request. This extra money would support initial work on the 2020 Mars Rover, formulation activities on a mission to Europa, and increase the pace of small missions. Of course, the sequester reduced this total to approximately $1.3 billion if applied evenly, still much better than the original proposal.

But NASA is not applying the sequester evenly. Mark Sykes of the Planetary Science Institute obtained a leaked draft of NASA's operating plan, which details the the actual implementation of the approved budget. Operating plans are prepared only after budgets pass Congress and must be submitted to the relevant appropriations committee within 45 days for review. Federal agencies have leeway in how they spend their allocated money internally, and up to 5% of any program's budget can be used to buttress other accounts. This is called "reprogramming."

However, the sequester requires that NASA find hundreds of millions of dollars of savings within its science programs. This requirement, combined with the ability to reprogram money as needed, drove NASA to essentially offset sequester cuts in other areas at the expense of the Planetary Science Division. Planetary's entire increase has been reprogrammed away for this.

This is an entirely separate issue from the proposed 2014 budget, which continues cuts to this program next year.

Key people in Congress will be very upset about this, especially Adam Schiff, Dianne Feinstein, and John Culberson, who wrote an open letter to the NASA Administrator just last month warning them to not defy congressional will on the importance of planetary science.

This is a leaked draft of the document, and may not reflect the final version sent to Congress on Friday. Once the operating plan is submitted Congress can voice their objections to it, and historically the agency works with them to address these issues. It's hard to say if that's the case this time since NASA was so clearly warned not to do this.

Planetary Science cannot get a break. NASA and the White House seem determined to underfund and sacrifice the future of planetary exploration despite the efforts of Congress and the public. Congress is our greatest ally in this struggle, and we've spoken to them about this. More details to come as we know them.

Note: Tomorrow I'll start posting more details about the Society's visits and discussion with Congress this week. There is lots to talk about.

See other posts from May 2013


Or read more blog entries about: Space Policy, FY2013 NASA Budget


Bob Ware: 05/15/2013 07:45 CDT

Egg shell walking... should we wait for Congress to say something or should we remind them to continue the support? I fear if we push now it may back fire since they still have to deal with NASA on NASA's rebuking actions. Any ideas from you TPS leaders on how to handle this?

George: 05/15/2013 07:47 CDT

This is terrible news. But let's face it -- this is the worst administration with respect to science funding in recent years. I was the Planetary Society hadn't embraced them so warmly in 2008 -- it makes the leadership seem foolish. Just wait for 2016. I fear that is all we can do. :(

Casey Dreier: 05/16/2013 11:39 CDT

@Bob: The key people in the appropriations committees have been notified and are aware about this. If you you have Schiff, Feinstein, Mikulski, or Culberson as your representative, it wouldn't hurt to email or call about this. Remember, though, that the official operating plan hasn't been delivered yet, so there's not much they can do until they see it. There is a long-term problem that we need to solve which is changing how NASA internally prioritizes planetary science within the Division. That would go a long way in solving this problem. We've had frank discussions with NASA employees about this.

Jack Shubert: 05/16/2013 05:14 CDT

Casey thank you for being one of the leading advocates for continued planetary exploration. If only Congress and NASA (which is puzzling to me) could see the forest through the trees. One question - the Europa delta is + 66.7. Does this mean continued funding of the mission?

Casey Dreier: 05/17/2013 11:24 CDT

@Jack: Europa will get the funding this year, but NASA and the Administration have no plans to ask for Europa money in support of a mission any time in the foreseeable future. They're going to sponsor research into instrumentation development to buy down risk for a future mission. There is nothing long-term in their planning. The extra money for Europa was written into the federal spending bill that passed in March. NASA *has* to spend that money on Europa. However, the total amounts for the other programs within Planetary Science wasn't written into the law, but the committee report, which is sort of a supporting document for the spending bill specifying how NASA should use its money. Though the committee report isn't binding, it's unusual for federal agencies to utterly dismiss those recommendations. By spending money on Europa, the Planetary Science Division actually has fewer resources to work with this year than it originally did, a perverse result of Congress's efforts to restore proper funding to this division.

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