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Casey DreierMay 19, 2015

[Updated] House NASA Funding Bill Proposes a Fantastic Budget for Planetary Science

Earth Science, Commercial Crew would see cuts

The House Appropriations Committee released their vision for NASA's 2016 budget this week, and it includes a fantastic level of support for NASA's Planetary Science Division: $1.557 billion. We at the Society have been arguing for at least $1.5 billion for this unique program for the past four years, so this is very satisfying to see.

But there's a lot going on this bill, and not all of it is as positive as the planetary number. So let's break it down some.

Highlights

So you may have heard about another House NASA funding bill, one that cuts $300 million from Earth Science. That bill was by the Science Committee, and is an authorization bill, which (surprise!) authorizes NASA funding and sets policy directives for the agency. It doesn't actually provide money to NASA every year. That's appropriations and that's what this bill is. Generally, authorization bills are not required for an agency to function, but without appropriations, the agency would shut down. So, some sort of appropriations bill must pass this year, and you should consider this the opening volley by the House of Representatives. NASA Administrator Bolden has already criticized parts of this bill, though in terms far less harsh than those reserved for the Authorization bill.

Sometime in the next month or so, there will be a NASA appropriations bill proposed on the Senate side, one that will likely have a different set of priorities (Sen. Mikulski of Maryland, and the Vice-Chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has stated she wants a higher total budget for NASA and to resist any cuts to Earth Science). I hope we'll also see similar strong support for a balanced planetary exploration plan there as well.

Planetary Science is receiving some very, very good support in this bill. This would enable and preserve some very exciting missions (Europa, Mars, new Discovery-class concepts). I'm hoping that the cuts to both Earth Science and Commercial Crew can be fixed while working with the Senate, and eventually get passed into law. We need some sort of spending bill this year to get the new starts approved for Europa and for other missions like Landsat 9, and a lot of people throughout Congress and the White House want that to happen.

Fundamentally, I feel that this bill perfectly demonstrates the problem currently dogging NASA: the nation is asking for a $24 billion space program in an $18.5 billion budget. That squeezes everything: Planetary Science, Earth Science, Commercial Crew, the SLS, the ISS—you name it. NASA's total budget needs to increase gradually—a few percentage points above inflation for a few years perhaps—so that we can support a robust, exciting science program and a robust, exciting human exploration program. Until then, we'll see this same story continue over and over.

Update: NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has responded to the House appropriations bill with additional criticism, particularly for the cuts to Earth Science, Commercial Crew, and the Space Technology Mission Directorate (which I did not mention). 

The White House's Office of Management and Budget, which prepares the budget request every year, also released an official response [pdf] to this bill. It expresses similar criticism towards the cuts to STMD, Commercial Crew, and Earth Science—which are all high priorities for the Administration.

Read more: Space Policy, FY2016 NASA Budget, Plutonium-238

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Casey Dreier

Director of Space Policy for The Planetary Society
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