Budget season is in full swing in Washington, D.C., and we're starting to see indications of how NASA will fare this year. I have to say, things are looking pretty promising.
But don't start the celebrations just yet, there's a lot yet to happen.
The spring—which I call Budget Season—is when both the House and Senate separately allocate funds to all federal agencies based on an initial budget proposal submitted by the White House (this proposal came out in March, and included a $185M cut to NASA).
Each chamber of Congress has an appropriations committee that is broken out into a dozen subcommittees, each tasked with funding a specific set of federal agencies. Funding bills are first hammered out in these subcommittees, which then bubble up to the full committee, which then get passed onto a full vote in each chamber. Ultimately, both the Senate and the House will have a full funding bill for the federal government, at which point they meet in a conference to work out the differences.
But that point is a long way off. At the moment we're still in subcommittee land.
For our purposes, we're concerned with the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies subcommittee (CJS). Both the House and Senate have this subcommittee, which covers the departments of Commerce and Justice, NASA, the NSF, and, well, related agencies.
Last week, the House CJS subcommittee released its draft funding bill for NASA, which, to the delight of many, proposes to fund the space agency at $17.9 billion for 2015—about $435 million more than the White House's proposal. Of this increase, about $221 million extra is added to NASA's science programs. At the moment, we don't know exactly how much of this increase goes to the beleaguered Planetary Science program, but statements made at the hearing by committee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) suggest that planetary will see a healthy increase over the White House's lowball proposal for the program. We'll learn the exact number when the full House Appropriations committee considers the bill, probably sometime within the next few weeks.
The House CJS bill also contained a specific directive providing $100 million for continued Europa mission studies. NASA had requested $15 million this year to study a reduced-cost mission, so this is a substantial increase (hopefully) demonstrating to the White House that Congress is ready and willing to support a major scientific mission in line with recommendations from the National Academies' Decadal Survey report.
I'm very, very happy to see the House propose more funding for NASA. The Society is withholding any official statement until we see the full details of the bill, but this a positive step no matter how you cut it. For too long, NASA has been given too much to do with too little resources, and this is a great sign that Congress sees this as well.
Ok, so the House CJS committee has released their draft bill, so what of the Senate?
The Senate is running behind the House—they just had their official hearing on NASA's budget on May 1st. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) has already stated that she intends to increase NASA's budget above the White House's request, at minimum. The House's increase will assist in this effort, providing bipartisan political support for these goals. Mikulski stated that her goal is to have NASA's funding bill passed on to the full Senate by July 4th.
So we're seeing great initial signs for NASA and for planetary exploration. But the budget won't be passed until the fall, so there is plenty of time for things to go awry. This is why it's so important to support these increases by writing your representatives in Congress. If you support NASA and want to explore Europa, Mars, and all the other fascinating destinations in our solar system, your representatives need to know so they can help preserve these increases throughout the entire process.