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Confirmed: NASA Defies the Will of Congress by Raiding Planetary Science Funding [updated]

Posted by Casey Dreier

10-06-2013 15:40 CDT

Topics: Explaining Policy, Space Policy, FY2013 NASA Budget

Update 2013-07-15: NASA's plan to raid planetary science funding was rejected by Congress. NASA's second operating plan draft funded Planetary at $1.271 billion, about $75 million more than this first proposal. --Casey

I need to re-orient a bit so we can talk about NASA's 2013 budget for Planetary Science. This is separate from the bad budget request for 2014, the threat of which is still very real.

But let's look back at our supposed victory, the one that happened in March.

In March, Congress passed a budget for the year which rejected a very large cut to NASA's Planetary Science Division that had been proposed by the White House. We worked very hard to stop this $300 million cut last year, which we essentially did, thanks to Congress and the tens-of-thousands of supporters who wrote and called their representatives. Congress restored almost all of this cut in March of this year.

But now NASA has found a way to undercut the intentions of Congress and to redirect this restored funding to other, unrelated programs.

Despite our best efforts and the best efforts of Congress, the implacable thirst to undercut the most visible and successful program within NASA continues unabated.

Most of us don't realize (I didn't, at least) that after a budget is passed, all federal agencies have to develop what they call an "operating plan," which details exactly how the agency will spend the money given to it by Congress.

Now, federal agencies have some leeway to move money around internally via this operating plan, usually in reaction to immediate needs of individual programs. Say that some Earth Sciences mission doesn't need the full amount of its budget because some flight testing takes less time than expected. NASA can take that extra money and apply it to a technology program in human spaceflight that's coming in a little over budget, that kind of thing. It's not uncommon, though the amounts tend to be small.

But thanks to the pressures of the sequester, NASA has taken a highly unusual move and used this ability – called reprogramming – to steal away the entire amount added back to Planetary Science in 2013 for use in other programs.

A leaked draft of the operating plan suggested that this was going to be the case, and today SpaceNews confirmed that the official operating plan transfers over a hundred million dollars from Planetary Science to Earth Science and the James Webb Space Telescope program.

Let's recap the sequence of events here:

  1. White house proposes ~$300 million of cuts to Planetary Science in 2013.
  2. The people of the U.S. and the world mount a huge campaign to stop these cuts, sending over 60,000 messages to Congress, the White House, and the Office of Management and Budget.
  3. Congress responds positively – and uniquely, I might add, no other division within NASA saw such a reversal of fortune – and restores nearly the entire amount.
  4. NASA receives the 2013 budget with restored money for Planetary Science, chuckles, and redirects this new money to unrelated programs.
  5. Planetary Science effectively receives the $300 million cut that was rejected by Congress.

Does this seem like a logical sequence of events to you?

There's still a chance that the appropriations committees in Congress can reject this operating plan, but they need to know that the public supports them on this.

This is disappointing, to be sure, and deeply, deeply frustrating for us here at the Society. But this is and always has been a long game we're playing. NASA and Congress need to know that no matter what, the public supports exploration of our solar system, that we want a mission to Europa, that we want to return samples of Mars to the Earth, and a host of worlds call to us for their exploration and discovery.

We're not going to give up.

That's why we need you to step up for planetary science again in 2013, and again in 2014. And every year after that if we have to.

That's why we're here. Exploration doesn't just happen. Sometimes it is actively stymied. But there's no greater calling and no greater achievement for humanity. With focused effort and public support, NASA can and will explore our solar system.

We just need to tell them to go.

 
See other posts from June 2013

 

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

Comments:

George: 06/10/2013 08:32 CDT

I said it in an earlier post and I'll say it again -- this administration is the most anti-science in my lifetime. Congress is behind planetary science and all the President has to do is tell NASA not to do this. But he won't. 2016 -- please get here fast!

GSFC does science too: 06/10/2013 11:14 CDT

Planetary science is not the only science, and this blog is shameful at times with all of "the sky is falling!!!" rhetoric. What's more valuable right now: sending another rover to Mars (which doesn't even satisfy the priorities of the decadal survey) or fully understanding the changing climate which is going to directly affect all of our lives over the coming decades? It's not like the money is being reallocated to the NSA or CIA or any other federal agency; it's all staying within NASA, and it seems plausible that NASA leadership knows better than any of us (including Congress) where it needs the money most urgently to accomplish its missions. Perhaps NASA recognized the overwhelming outcry for continued funding of planetary missions, but also recognized that just because other science initiatives aren't as "sexy" and don't have the same level of political organization, they are just as worthy of receiving the funding for their research. Planetary science is awesome, and it needs more money! But you know what? The same can be said for earth science, and heliophysics, and astronomy, and on and on. There's no reason to frame this operating plan as a direct attack on planetary science; it's simply the reality that we have to live with given the current budget environment. No one is going to get everything they want or even need, and that fact isn't going to change for some time. Please try to frame the discussion in this light.

Gregg: 06/10/2013 11:41 CDT

Thank God! For the longest time it felt like the Planetary Society had become a paid publicity arm of the Obama Administration. The whole board of directors seemed completely enamored by a leadership that, at best, was obviously disinterested in space exploration and embarrassed by the idea of American leadership in anything. You guys did great during the Bush Administration, calling them out whenever they deserved it. Not so for most of the last four-plus years. I let my membership lapse once I got the impression that the Planetary Society was moving away from being an objective space sciences proponent. I would absolutely love to re-join. Please, please keep up the great work and renewed objectivity in protecting our space sciences from all political sides!

Shaun: 06/11/2013 01:01 CDT

Casey, great write-up. I feel you may need to make another Nye video, in all seriousness. It is the youtube Nye videos that people search by date that get the message out. Tap into the social video feeds to make this happen, just as you did last time with the $300 million. Don't be afraid to step on a few NASA toes.

Colin Pain: 06/11/2013 04:26 CDT

This is all a worry - we planetary scientists in the rest of the world pretty much rely on NASA and ESA data for our work. NASA is particularly important because of the policy of making everything freely available. I tried sending a message of support, but was foiled because I don't have a US address. Perhaps you could tweak the form?

Stacie: 06/11/2013 01:36 CDT

GSFC: I thought that The Planetary Society was an advocacy organization. Isn’t it Mr. Dreier’s job to advocate for planetary science? You’re right. Our reality is that there is only so much money to go around these days, and not everyone is going to get everything they need. Thank goodness that those who work to further education and exploration in the field of planetary science have such outspoken advocates. After all--it is the squeaky wheel that gets the oil!

OrionEridanus: 06/11/2013 02:58 CDT

I have to agree with GSFC on the sensationalist tone I have seen in this blog the few times I have read it. This time he says "...the official operating plan transfers over a hundred million dollars from Planetary Science to Earth Science and the James Webb Space Telescope program..." but then claims "Planetary Science effectively receives the $300 million cut that was rejected by Congress." Sounds like half the cut to me. It is still large, but I also know that allowing congress to micromanage every agency is also not sound practice. If congress wants to mandate funding for a specific program within Planetary Science, that is different, though I think that is fraught with peril also.

Casey Dreier: 06/11/2013 11:51 CDT

@GSFC: The major issue with the operating plan isn't that it cuts Planetary Science funding, it's that it cuts Planetary Science funding *disproportionately* after a major reversal in fortunes. We're not demanding full funding here, just enough to cover the additional Europa pre-formulation activities mandated by Congress and a bit more to ensure the next Discovery-class mission AO happens in 2014, which reflects an even and fair application of the sequester. We must ensure that NASA pursues "sexy" missions on a regular basis in order to generate support for space exploration in general. The popularity of Planetary Science missions (and Curiosity, especially) helps maintain public awareness and positive feelings towards NASA, especially in a time when human exploration is restructuring to get out of LEO. NASA needs all the publicity and awareness it can get to help maintain funding and political support during what will be some very difficult years ahead.

Casey Dreier: 06/12/2013 01:22 CDT

@Gregg: We've always tried very hard to be nonpartisan in our opinions and be that independent voice in the public sphere. I'm glad we're making a better impression on you, and hope to see you as a member once again.

Casey Dreier: 06/12/2013 01:22 CDT

@Colin: Have you seen our form for those not living in the U.S.? Check it out here: https://secure3.convio.net/planet/site/Advocacy?pagename=homepage&page=UserAction&id=167

Casey Dreier: 06/12/2013 04:55 CDT

@ OrionEridanus: The math is a little weird, mainly from seeming confusion on the SpaceNews side. The Planetary Science Division received $1.5 billion in 2012. NASA's new operating plan will fund it at $1.2 billion. They've lost $300 million in the space of about a year. If the sequester had been applied evenly, Planetary Science would've received around $1.3 billion for 2013, which seems to be the baseline that SpaceNews is using to talk about a $100 million cut. Obviously, not great, but enough to handle new requirements for Europa pre-formulation activities and maybe speed up the next Discovery-class mission. As it stands, Planetary Science is actually worse off than before, since they're absorbing the extra Europa requirements into what was already a very tight budget.

Paul McCarthy: 06/13/2013 01:02 CDT

@GSFC and OrionEridanus: I don't find the tone the least bit sensationalist. There's clearly disproportionate cuts. But what gets me is the strange lack of enthusiasm, the strange lack of adventurous spirit inherent in these priorities. The question of whether there's ANY life beyond Earth dwarfs ALL others (ok, maybe a couple about the overall nature of the Universe and the nature of reality etc come close). You've got 2 (essentially proven) warm oceans nearby(!), one considerately spewing ready-made samples into orbit(!) and one with colored traces of what's below lying all over the surface! How come these are not absolute top, top, top, urgent priority? With the total budgets being spent in space, if the whole show was at the mercy of private enterprise (and I'm not saying it can possibly be so, just drawing the contrast), someone would definitely have gone for the jugular 20 years ago!! Think of Craig Venter coming right out of left field and zooming straight for the holy grail, to the chagrin of the "business as usuals"!! Why aren't these NASA's poster children? And why isn't EVERYONE with the slightest interest passionately excited by and behind such goals (GSFC and OrionEridanus?)?

Leonidas Papadopoulos: 06/14/2013 12:06 CDT

Sorry, but I'm not sold on that over-hyped 'end of the world' rhetoric of the Planetary Society about these cuts. I also have to agree with GSFC here. Cuts on planetary science are tough and nobody wants them, but there are other things going on in the NASA portfolio besides planetary science that needs to be funded also, some of them as 'sexy' as planetary science. I read Marc Boucher's comments on NASAWatch about the whole thing, and his comments summarise my view also, perfectly. Mark says: "While I can sympathize with those who support a strong Planetary Science budget I also see the need for Commercial Crew to get the funding it needs. In a world of finite resources you can't have everything. The only way to please everyone would be a budget increase. But that's not going to happen in the current political climate." I'm a space advocate, but on the human exploration side, not only robotic exploration. Robotic exploration is really awesome and 'sexy', but for my money, so is the development of commercial vehicles to orbit, that could help stirr the development of more grand projects. For instance, Bigelow is really interested in constructing a human base on the Moon with NASA's help, and he repeatedly said, he waited for the development of commercial access to orbit. A construction of a lunar base? How cool and 'sexy' is that? Imagine what a public awareness and positive feelings towards NASA and human (and robotic) space exploration that would give! I would really a Europa mission. Really! But if I really had to choose, I'd prefer the funding of Commercial Crew and the James Webb telescope (as is the case of the NASA 2013 operating plan). And James Webb is also fundamental and tremendous science, and 'sexy' as hell as well.

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