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

Earth Science, Commercial Crew would see cuts

Posted by Casey Dreier

19-05-2015 15:25 CDT

Topics: Space Policy, FY2016 NASA Budget, Plutonium-238

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.


  • NASA's Top-Line Budget
    NASA, overall, does extremely well in this bill. Despite the House of Representatives working under Budget Control Act capped levels of spending—which are substantially lower overall than the White House requested—NASA gets exactly the same top-line amount: $18.5 billion. This is $519 million above last year and exactly what the President requested for 2016.
  • Planetary Science Returns to Historical Levels
    As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Planetary Science does extremely well in this bill, which would return the program to the levels before the big round of cuts in 2013. 
  • MER Opportunity and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Will Continue
    The bill adds money to continue operations of two high-performing planetary science missions.
  • A Europa Mission by 2022, and an Ocean Worlds Exploration Program
    NASA's new mission would receive $140 million next year, $110 million above what was requested. The bill would also direct NASA to utilize the SLS to launch the Europa mission, and to do so by 2022. This is a far more aggressive schedule than NASA's vague comittments to the "mid-to-late 2020s". The bill also prescribes an "Ocean Worlds Exploration Program" to search for life in the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. As Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle points out, this development represents a "marvelous day for planetary science and the search for life."
  • More Plutonium-238
    Technology funding for Planetary Science, which funds NASA's entire Plutonium-238 (Pu-238) restart program and infrastructure, gets a boost of $30 million, for which $20 million is put aside for creating new Pu-238. Pu-238 is currently the only power source available for deep space missions (or any destination without reliable access to solar energy), and therefore is a critical need for missions exploring the outer planets and their moons. NASA restarted production of Pu-238 a few years ago, but current funding levels and other technical issues have ensure that the first batches won't be ready until the early 2020s. And even then, current plans are to produce only ~1kg of fuel per year (most missions require 4.5kg or more). This support for Pu-238 production seems like an effort to prevent a future bottleneck of fuel supply.  
  • Astrophysics Gets a Boost
    Planetary Science isn't the only science division seeing an increase. The Astrophysics Division would get an increase of $26 million and "recommends" $36 million be applied to develop direct exoplanet detection capabilities on the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST).
  • Space Launch System Sees a Significant Increase
    The SLS gets the largest increase of any program within NASA. The President requested $1.356B for 2016, and the House bill would provide $1.850 billion—nearly $500 million more. 
  • Earth Science Gets Cut
    This bill would provide $1.68 billion for the Earth Science Division—$90 million less than what it received in 2015, and $269 million below what the President requested. The committee specifically rejects funding for the Thermal-Infrared Free-Flyer, a stopgap mission to provide data continuity before the next Landsat mission in 2023. It doesn't specify where the other cuts would come from, but this would likely impact the transfer of several NOAA instruments to NASA and delay some future missions in development. Marcia Smith of Space Policy Online has an excellent backgrounder on the increases to the Earth Science program [pdf] as proposed by the President in 2016. This is far less severe than the $300 million cut proposed by the House Science Committee in their NASA Authorization bill, but still a symptom of the problems caused by the mismatch between NASA's goals and its total budget.
  • Commercial Crew funded below NASA's request
    The $1 billion for Commercial Crew provided in this bill would be the most Congress has ever approved for this program, but it is $246 million below what the White House and NASA requested for 2016. NASA has stated several times that providing anything less than their requested amount would delay the program and require them to renegotiate their contracts with SpaceX and Boeing.

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.

See other posts from May 2015


Or read more blog entries about: Space Policy, FY2016 NASA Budget, Plutonium-238


Arbitrary: 05/19/2015 04:36 CDT

But I predict that the Planetary Society will hate this proposal and instead propose a deep cut into planetary science budget, in order to support the research into why the global temperature doesn't care at all about human CO2 emissions. I'm sure this will happen. Seth Shostack won't be able to talk about anything else than how important it is to cut spending on science to instead spend all that money on the non-happening global warming. It is practically illegal to do anything else. Global warming is holy. There's no denying that!

ethanol: 05/19/2015 07:26 CDT

Arbitrary, It's never that impressive to make a "prediction" about an event (namely the Planetary Society's reaction) that has already happened. But it's another thing entirely to make such a "prediction" and get it wrong.

Paul McCarthy: 05/20/2015 12:55 CDT

Actually, the exaggeration/hyperbole but not complete invalidity of Arbitrary's comments, seems quite amusing.

sepiae: 05/20/2015 03:08 CDT

That's excitingly good news for a change [in regards to money]! I'm quite ecstatic about an Europa Mission and the Ocean Worlds Exploration Program. Europa and Enceladus, that's the two places I'd be rooting for. I propose a bet - can't be about money on my behalf, but feel free to offer some - if it's only one of these two moons it'll be Enceladus where life will be found. Anyone...?

Arbitrary: 05/20/2015 04:16 CDT

Looks like a nuclear mission to Europa, for real! Already in the 2020's. Is this kind of a space race against ESA? I think it was the ESA general director who told NASA: "- All these worlds are yours, except Europa which is OURS!" I thought from the beginning that the whole "sample return from Earth"-mission was a waste, good thing they got rid of that. Even an more expensive SLS is better than that. Next thing to divest is that idea about examining meteorites in space instead of in the museums. But we'll have to wait until both Obama and Bolden resigns before that decision becomes official.

Mr. Collins: 05/20/2015 06:47 CDT

This is a very welcome surprise. I did not expect for the 2016 funding to be as good as it is, with the exception of Earth Science. Looking forward to the proposed Europa and Ocean Worlds Exploration Programs, hopefully they will include landing on the moons.

Tony Fisk: 05/20/2015 08:59 CDT

Do not look at ourselves; we may not like what we see (and might even feel inclined to act on it!) I get the need to bolster the Pu-238 program. I wonder if it's worthwhile to investigate the feasibility of using Thorium as an alternative.

allen gustav: 06/25/2015 08:53 CDT

Noting three things: -that Planetary Sciences gets a nice and deserved increase in the authorization bill, and seeing -that Plutonium production spending increases but the technical issues and planned production amounts seem to have it well behind the original plan -and knowing MARS 2020 is a radioisotope mission Is there any emphasis being put on advanced conversion technology to make more efficient use of the plutonium we have and better use the low production amounts we will see in the future? ASRG anyone?

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