Casey DreierMay 15, 2013

NASA Robs Planetary Science

Despite Congress rejecting cuts to NASA's Planetary Science Division in March, NASA plans to raid the restored funds for use in other projects for the remainder of this year. This is a stunning rebuke to Congress and a very rare move by NASA that continues to undercut this popular and productive program.

Just to recap: the final budget for 2013 wasn't passed until late March of this year. It provided $1.42 billion for Planetary Science, over $200 million more than the President's original request. This extra money would support initial work on the 2020 Mars Rover, formulation activities on a mission to Europa, and increase the pace of small missions. Of course, the sequester reduced this total to approximately $1.3 billion if applied evenly, still much better than the original proposal.

But NASA is not applying the sequester evenly. Mark Sykes of the Planetary Science Institute obtained a leaked draft of NASA's operating plan, which details the the actual implementation of the approved budget. Operating plans are prepared only after budgets pass Congress and must be submitted to the relevant appropriations committee within 45 days for review. Federal agencies have leeway in how they spend their allocated money internally, and up to 5% of any program's budget can be used to buttress other accounts. This is called "reprogramming."

However, the sequester requires that NASA find hundreds of millions of dollars of savings within its science programs. This requirement, combined with the ability to reprogram money as needed, drove NASA to essentially offset sequester cuts in other areas at the expense of the Planetary Science Division. Planetary's entire increase has been reprogrammed away for this.

This is an entirely separate issue from the proposed 2014 budget, which continues cuts to this program next year.

Key people in Congress will be very upset about this, especially Adam Schiff, Dianne Feinstein, and John Culberson, who wrote an open letter to the NASA Administrator just last month warning them to not defy congressional will on the importance of planetary science.

This is a leaked draft of the document, and may not reflect the final version sent to Congress on Friday. Once the operating plan is submitted Congress can voice their objections to it, and historically the agency works with them to address these issues. It's hard to say if that's the case this time since NASA was so clearly warned not to do this.

Planetary Science cannot get a break. NASA and the White House seem determined to underfund and sacrifice the future of planetary exploration despite the efforts of Congress and the public. Congress is our greatest ally in this struggle, and we've spoken to them about this. More details to come as we know them.

Note: Tomorrow I'll start posting more details about the Society's visits and discussion with Congress this week. There is lots to talk about.

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