Casey DreierMay 19, 2015

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

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

  • 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.

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