Van KaneAug 30, 2013

Finally, an FY13 NASA Planetary Budget, Just 11 Months Late

Just a month before the end of Fiscal Year 2013 (September 30), Space Policy Online has released the final resolution of NASA’s FY13 budget. The final budget figures were not released by the government but were supplied following a request by Space Policy Online. The final figures for the Planetary Science program still reflect a substantial cut from the previous year but are much better than the proposed budget for FY13.

The FY13 budget approval was especially messy this year because Congress failed to pass a final budget until last spring (around six months late). The budget was then automatically cut through a process known as the Sequester. The Administration then reportedly proposed larger cuts to the planetary program to spare other parts of the NASA budget the effects of the Sequester. Congress reportedly rejected that division of cuts, resulting in negotiations and the final budget supplied to Space Policy Online.

News reports have also discussed other impacts – some potentially serious – that may eventually result from the continuing cuts to NASA’s Planetary Science budget. I summarize these following the table of numbers. 

Planetary Science Budgets

$1501.4M – FY12 approved

$1,192.3M – FY13 Administration proposed budget

$1,415.0M – FY13 Congressionally approved budget, pre Sequester

$1196.0M – FY13 reported proposed Administration budget following Sequester

$1271.5M – FY13 final budget per Space Policy Online post Sequester

In a nutshell, the final budget represents a substantial cut compared to the previous year (FY12) and compared to what was approved by Congress. The final budget approximately splits the difference between the Administration's proposed budget and Congress’ approved budgets. 

The disagreement over the level of the Planetary Science budget looks to continue for the next year, too. The Administration requested $1,217.5M for FY14, while the House and Senate have approved $1,315.0M and $1,317.6M, respectively for next year. 

Space Policy Online does not provide any detail on spending within the Planetary Science program. Important details would be the level of funding for the Discovery and New Frontiers programs, which would indicate when the selection of the next missions in the programs could begin. We also don't know at what level studies of a future Europa mission are funded. 

In the meantime, Space News has provided a steady trickle of the effects of the declining Planetary Science budget over the last couple of months: 

  • The declining budgets may not support continued funding for both the Cassini and Curiosity rover missions. Science News July 18  (I was afraid of this possibility when the FY14 budget proposal showed a dramatic decline in outer planet funding following the completion of the current phase of the Cassini mission. If the Cassini mission were terminated early, we would lose the close in orbits – just outside and then inside the rings – that essentially constitutes an entirely new mission similar to the Juno mission at Jupiter. The key as to whether or not this trade off must be made may lie with whether the future on-going budgets are closer to the Administration's ~$1,200M mark or Congress' ~$1,300M mark.) 
  • The start dates for the competitions to select the next Discovery and New Frontiers missions are uncertain and won’t be known until the Administration releases its FY15 budget around February 2014. Space News July 16  (NASA cannot begin the competitions until it knows whether or not it can plan on adequate funding to implement the selected missions. It has to base those projections on the projected budgets supplied with the Administration's annual budgets. If the Administration continues to propose low budget numbers, the start of the competitions may continue to be pushed out even if Congress increases the final budget numbers for the current year.) 
  • While the Administration’s budget proposals state that there is no plan or funding for a future mission to Europa, Congressionally approved funds in the FY13 budget allow early design and technology development efforts to continue. Space News July 22. 
  • The grass roots lobbying by the Planetary Society is one of the reasons that Congress continues to provide more money to the Planetary Science program than is requested by the Administration. Space News August 26  (See this post by Casey Drier on the inside story about how the lobbying is done.) 

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