Casey DreierJun 10, 2013

Confirmed: NASA Defies the Will of Congress by Raiding Planetary Science Funding [updated]

Update 2013-07-15: NASA's plan to raid planetary science funding was rejected by Congress. NASA's second operating plan draft funded Planetary at $1.271 billion, about $75 million more than this first proposal. --Casey

I need to re-orient a bit so we can talk about NASA's 2013 budget for Planetary Science. This is separate from the bad budget request for 2014, the threat of which is still very real.

But let's look back at our supposed victory, the one that happened in March.

In March, Congress passed a budget for the year which rejected a very large cut to NASA's Planetary Science Division that had been proposed by the White House. We worked very hard to stop this $300 million cut last year, which we essentially did, thanks to Congress and the tens-of-thousands of supporters who wrote and called their representatives. Congress restored almost all of this cut in March of this year.

But now NASA has found a way to undercut the intentions of Congress and to redirect this restored funding to other, unrelated programs.

Despite our best efforts and the best efforts of Congress, the implacable thirst to undercut the most visible and successful program within NASA continues unabated.

Most of us don't realize (I didn't, at least) that after a budget is passed, all federal agencies have to develop what they call an "operating plan," which details exactly how the agency will spend the money given to it by Congress.

Now, federal agencies have some leeway to move money around internally via this operating plan, usually in reaction to immediate needs of individual programs. Say that some Earth Sciences mission doesn't need the full amount of its budget because some flight testing takes less time than expected. NASA can take that extra money and apply it to a technology program in human spaceflight that's coming in a little over budget, that kind of thing. It's not uncommon, though the amounts tend to be small.

But thanks to the pressures of the sequester, NASA has taken a highly unusual move and used this ability – called reprogramming – to steal away the entire amount added back to Planetary Science in 2013 for use in other programs.

A leaked draft of the operating plan suggested that this was going to be the case, and today SpaceNews confirmed that the official operating plan transfers over a hundred million dollars from Planetary Science to Earth Science and the James Webb Space Telescope program.

Let's recap the sequence of events here:

Does this seem like a logical sequence of events to you?

There's still a chance that the appropriations committees in Congress can reject this operating plan, but they need to know that the public supports them on this.

This is disappointing, to be sure, and deeply, deeply frustrating for us here at the Society. But this is and always has been a long game we're playing. NASA and Congress need to know that no matter what, the public supports exploration of our solar system, that we want a mission to Europa, that we want to return samples of Mars to the Earth, and a host of worlds call to us for their exploration and discovery.

We're not going to give up.

That's why we need you to step up for planetary science again in 2013, and again in 2014. And every year after that if we have to.

That's why we're here. Exploration doesn't just happen. Sometimes it is actively stymied. But there's no greater calling and no greater achievement for humanity. With focused effort and public support, NASA can and will explore our solar system.

We just need to tell them to go.

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