What's the Problem? Next year's budget (for 2015) continues large cuts to the part of NASA that explores the solar system – the Planetary Science Division. This continues to undermine the health and potential of NASA's deep space capabilities.
So what do you want? The Planetary Society wants Congress to restore funding for NASA's Planetary Science Division to $1.5 billion per year—the historical average for the program. Right now the White House proposes far less than that ($1.28 billion), crippling one of the most popular and effective programs of exploration within NASA.
Why $1.5 billion? We argue that $1.5 billion per year – with no increases for the next five years – is the minimum necessary to pursue the most important scientific goals for solar system exploration. There are clear goals defined by the scientific community for planetary exploration, but it fundamentally revolves around balance: small, medium, and large missions, scientific research, and technology development. Right now, the program is not balanced, and our small missions and scientific research is hurting, the big missions are underfunded, and technology development eviscerated.
Right now, NASA has begun work on a Mars mission to launch in 2020 that will store soil samples for eventual return to the Earth. This is very good. Thanks to lobbying efforts by The Planetary Society and others, NASA has tentatively agreed to a mission to explore the subsurface ocean of Europa. To aggressively pursue a big mission of discovery for both, and to keep a steady pace of exciting, cost-effective missions exploring the depths of our solar system, we need $1.5 billion per year.
For context, $1.5 billion is less than 9% of NASA's total budget and less overall than what Americans spent on dog toys in 2012.
What is the Planetary Science Division? Isn't it all NASA? Like any large bureaucracy, NASA is divided into sections and subsections, each with their own area of responsibility.
The Planetary Science Division is a section within NASA's Science Directorate that is responsible for all robotic missions to solar system destinations except the Sun. For example, Cassini at Saturn, Opportunity and Curiosity on Mars, and MESSENGER at Mercury. It also develops and plans future missions, new technology, and supports scientific research.
It has its own budget line within NASA. This is what's being cut. The following chart shows the recent decline in the program (Congress has mitigated the scope of the cuts since 2013):
Lori Dajose/Michael Wong/Loren Roberts/Casey Dreier for the Planetary Society
NASA's Planetary Science Division Funding and Number of Missions 2004 - 2020
Funding for planetary exploration at NASA mapped against the number of missions in development, adjusted for inflation and for programmatic consistency. Current as of the FY2016 President's Budget Request.
Where does the rest of NASA's budget go? NASA's budget is distributed to a variety of different directorates. A portion of this money goes to human spaceflight, another portion goes to operate the NASA centers around the country, and another portion funds all science within NASA. NASA is making a new rocket, a new crew capsule, funding private space entities, running the International Space Station, paying Russia to launch astronauts, experimenting in aeronautics, spinning off its technology to small businesses, creating education and outreach programs, just to name a few other areas besides science in which NASA spends its money.
In 2014, NASA will spend around $5 billion on all of its scientific programs. This money is divided into subdivisions: Earth science, heliophysics, astronomy, the James Webb Space Telescope, and planetary science. Until recently, the Planetary Science Division had been funded at about $1.5 billion/yr, which is about 0.04% of the total federal budget. Maintaining this small investment in solar system exploration is one of our primary concerns here at the Planetary Society, anything less, and we can't maintain a robust program of solar system exploration.
Why was planetary science targeted for cuts? Isn't it really successful? NASA's planetary science division has been extremely successful. The last major mission failure was CONTOUR in 2002, meaning that we've enjoyed a decade of unbroken success, no easy task with the unforgiving complexities of space travel.
It's not entirely clear why the planetary sciences division faces a disproportionate cut compared to other divisions within NASA. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is an unrelated project that faces major cost overruns. Since it lives within NASA's Science division, the money to pay for the project has to come from other science programs only—not any other part of NASA. Some of the loss in planetary science funding was clearly because of JWST, but only the staffers at the Office of Management and Budget know why they singled out planetary science to the degree that it is.
The government is broke. How can we afford this? There are issues with the federal deficit, but planetary science (or NASA as a whole) is not what's causing them. Spending on NASA amounts to 0.45% of the total budget, and planetary science is about 9% of that. If you de-funded NASA in its entirety it would only reduce this year's deficit by a negligible amount.
Below is a graph showing estimated government spending for 2013 as proposed by President Obama. On the right is estimated government spending for 2013 with restored funding for Planetary Science. Try to spot the difference.
Federal Budget Comparison With and Without Full Funding for Planetary Science
The Planetary Society believes that the very small investments we make in cutting-edge research and technology has a huge rate of return and is worth funding even in lean times.
We also argue that when times are lean we should focus on investments that provide large returns at relatively small cost. The level of scientific return from planetary missions is immense, but they're also extremely effective in reaching out to the public. It was a planetary science mission, the Curiosity Mars rover, that brought people out to Times Square at midnight on a Sunday night to watch it land. No other mission at NASA has generated such a large social following and interest.
Missions of planetary exploration are cost-effective. The scientific community has provided clear direction achievable goals. The public loves the missions. So let's continue to invest in Planetary Science to ensure that NASA stays relevant and produces a steady stream of successes during the time it's revamping the human spaceflight program and developing the next generation of rockets.
What Has The Planetary Society Done So Far? A lot! We've organized letter-writing campaigns, sent our lobbyist out on capitol hill, met with congressional representatives face-to-face and on the phone, and worked with other organizations like the AAS's Division of Planetary Sciences and the American Geophysical Union. We continue to need support from people like you to keep the pressure on both Congress and the Office of Management and Budget to reverse these cuts. We're building a strong and active program that actively lobbies for space exploration on behalf of our members. Our main Advocacy page will give you the latest actions and information about what's going on.
How can I help? You can help by being politically engaged and contacting your representatives and the President on this issue (check out the sidebar section for any current action alerts). Merely being a member of the Planetary Society helps, as it allows us to coordinate our members with letter-writing campaigns and provides us with the financial resources to pursue an aggressive counter to these cuts. Donating to our advocacy campaign is also a good way to help out, as it provides us additional financial support to use our lobbyist and fly staff members and Bill Nye out to Washington.
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