Casey DreierJan 16, 2014

Continued Victories for Planetary Exploration

The Society and its members have worked hard over the past year and a half to restore funding for NASA’s Planetary Science Division. This week we savor the fruits of that labor as Congress passed a budget that allocated $127 million more to solar system exploration than requested by the White House. While we’re still below our goal of $1.5 billion – the historical average for the program – this is the second year in a row that Congress rejected the full cuts proposed by the White House, and that is a powerful statement.

The Planetary Society released a statement of support for this spending bill, and formally thanked Congress for once again stepping up on behalf of solar system exploration. Over fifty thousand messages were sent to Congress and the President by members and supporters of The Planetary Society in 2013, and those made a difference.

We will continue our aggressive campaign for planetary exploration this year as we work to ensure a Mars sample return, send out a fleet of small missions to all corners of the solar system, maintain leading scientific capability, and explore the outer solar system. The Society as recently as December called for President Obama to embrace a flagship mission to explore Europa, and we hope that this continued support by Congress and compelling new evidence for water plumes help motivate the Administration to request an increased budget in 2015.

NASA’s total budget for 2014 will be $17.65 billion, a very good number, and about $800 million more than last year’s post-sequester amount. For additional analysis of the rest of NASA’s budget, including SLS/Orion and Commercial Crew, I recommend Jeff Foust’s analysis at SpacePolitics.

The Bill

NASA’s Planetary Science Division will receive $1.345 billion in 2014, compared to the President’s request of $1.217 billion. Unlike last year, there are no additional sequester cuts that will shrink this number. Congress even included a strongly worded statement in the bill’s accompanying report warning NASA not to shift this money away to other projects, something they tried to do in 2013.

Congress directed these budget increases to the Discovery program, which manages small solar system missions; to the continued operation of MESSENGER through 2015; to the Mars Exploration Program so it can get a jump-start on the Mars 2020 rover; and applies an additional $80 million towards early-stage concept design and instrument study for the Europa Clipper mission, even though the White House and NASA have no plans to make this mission a reality. In lieu of a formal mission, NASA will spend the money refining the mission design and instrumentation, activities that could help reduce the total cost should the White House change its mind in the future.

FY2014 Congressional Omnibus Allocations for Planetary Science
FY2014 Congressional Omnibus Allocations for Planetary Science Congress provided an additional $127 million for Planetary Science beyond what the White House requested in 2014. This chart compares the FY13 Congressional appropriation, the FY14 Presidential request, and the FY14 Congressional appropriation for major programs within Planetary Science.Image: Van Kane

The budget forbids the Education and Public Outreach reorganization first proposed by the White House, which caused much confusion, worry, and consternation within the scientific and educator community, and requests that more study be done on this issue before Congress assents to it. The bill also fully funds the levels of scientific research requested by White House, and doubles the nation’s budget for near-Earth object detection to $40.5 million (a good thing).

The bill also accepts the White House’s proposal to shift monetary responsibility for maintaining the nation’s stockpile of plutonium-238 from the Department of Energy to NASA, which adds a new $50 million/year burden on the Planetary Science Division. I find the plutonium-238 situation particularly galling, since the Department of Energy’s mission is to provide radioactive isotopes for other areas of government, and for the past fifty years has shouldered the (relatively) small cost of maintaining this infrastructure. NASA is not even allowed to use the entire nation’s stockpile of plutonium-238, though NASA is now paying for its maintenance and (separately) for its new production. But, to look at this positively, plutonium-238 shortages no longer seem to threaten solar system exploration. That’s great news, no matter who pays for it.

What’s Next

The book is not closed on 2014. Now that NASA has its money, it has to spend it. It does this through its operating plan, where the agency can make minor adjustments to project funding based on programmatic needs. Last year NASA abused this process and tried to shift all additional money allocated for Planetary Science by Congress to unrelated projects. I feel that this is unlikely to happen again, but it’s something that we will be watching closely. I know it sounds crazy, but sometimes you have to ensure that NASA spends planetary money on planetary projects.

The whole cycle begins again with the release of the President’s 2015 budget request, which looks to be sometime in early March. It has been delayed slightly in order to incorporate feedback from the bill Congress just passed today, so there is some hope that the budgetary situation for Planetary Science will improve next year.

The Europa Clipper Early Spacecraft Concept Art
The Europa Clipper Early Spacecraft Concept Art The Europa Clipper spacecraft flies over the surface of Europa in this conceptual rendering, released early in the missions design phase.Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Michael Carroll

This same budget request we will also  the fate of Cassini. Last year’s budget request projected just enough money to shut down the mission (i.e. prematurely crash it into something). It’s also possible (though highly unlikely) that the White House could heed our call and include a “new start” for the Europa Clipper mission in this budget, something which would likely be embraced by Congress. Adding a Europa mission would require the total budget increase to around $1.5 billion, which is not coincidentally the number we’ve been arguing for since 2012.

Final Thoughts

If you took the time to write or call Congress to ask for increased planetary science funding 2013, pat yourself on the back: this is a victory for you and all fans of solar system exploration. Thank you for stepping up and creating an unprecedented amount of public support for this unique program.

Congress deserves thanks for this, too, which is something said all too rarely. They listened to the strong public and scientific support for planetary exploration and worked to make things better. We are fortunate to have the strong proponents in the House and Senate that we do, and particular thanks are due to Rep. Adam Schiff, Rep. John Culberson, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Rep. Lamar Smith (for the great planetary language in the 2013 NASA Authorization bill), Sen. Barbara Mikulski, and Rep. Frank Wolf. You’ll notice that this is a bipartisan list of legislators, another situation which is all too rare these days.

Despite this good news, we’ve heard rumblings that the President’s budget request in 2015 is not good. Those are just rumors. But remember that even it it comes to pass, we can change the outcome. We’ve seen that public pressure is effective; the extra $127 million for planetary is here because we stood together and fought for a future of exploration. We may have to do so again.

Let’s Go Beyond The Horizon

Every success in space exploration is the result of the community of space enthusiasts, like you, who believe it is important. You can help usher in the next great era of space exploration with your gift today.

Donate Today