Charlene AndersonSep 17, 2011

A Skirmish Won, the Battle Will Continue

In this latest skirmish over NASA's budget, the numbers are in -- and it looks like we won! All Planetary Society members and supporters who signed our petitions, wrote letters and e-mails, sent faxes and made phone calls -- you helped turn this battle. Congratulations!

But the struggle is not over. There are many more steps to take before the U.S. Federal Budget for Fiscal Year 2012 is complete, and we are going to need you to take action again before the year is out.

But right now, let's take stock of where we are

Overall, the NASA budget approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee is up over $1 billion from the corresponding numbers the House committee passed over the summer. It's still not as high as NASA's original budget request from the White House, but considering the current economic might be tempted to say it's great.

The biggest news is that the Senate proposes to increase funding for the James Webb Space Telescope significantly to put the program back on track. Just a few weeks ago, the House appropriations bill cut all funding for JWST and to cancel the program to teach NASA a lesson. In contrast, the Senate bill proposes to speed up JWST's progress and aim toward a 2018 launch by providing $530 million for the telescope for Fiscal Year 2012, an increase of $156 million over the amount NASA requested.

Will the Senate's proposed increase for JWST hold? Probably not entirely. The differing bills from the House and Senate will have to be reconciled, so they will settle on some number between the House's $0 and the Senate mark of $529.6 million. However, for JWST to remain viable the number must be much closer to the Senate proposal.

Planetary science takes a modest hit from the White House request, down only (only!) $40 million from $1,540 million. Earth science is down only $32 million from the original request of $1,797 million. These numbers will not give us everything we want, and ambitious endeavors like flagship missions to Mars or Europa may still be in danger, so we must be vigilant.

Two critical areas absorbed big cuts to buoy the rest of the NASA budget.

Space Technology did better in the Senate bill ($637 million) than the House bill ($375 billion), but both numbers are much lower than the Administration request ($1,024 billion.) Space Technology is the most future-oriented part of the NASA budget, intended to develop technologies that will enable human explorers to reach beyond Earth orbit and to study worlds that are right now out of our reach. But it seems that an investment in the future is a hard sell in this economy.

Commercial spaceflight will not be getting the hoped-for big increase in support to develop a new generation of private rockets to carry cargo and crew to low Earth orbit, but the Senate bill does provide a healthy boost over the House version. The White House asked for $850 million, the House gave only $312 million, while the Senate bill provides $500 million. SpaceX, one of the leading firms in commercial spaceflight, is happy with this number and issued a press release thanking the Senate committee.

And now we come to the Big Rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS) mandated by Congress last year. Mere hours before the Senate committee was scheduled to meet, NASA called a new conference to announce their response to the congressional mandate and unveil the new rocket. The plan is to take technology from the Space Shuttle and the cancelled Constellation program to build a rocket for a first launch in 2017 that can lift 70 metric tons. It will evolve to lift 130 metric tons and eventually launch missions to an asteroid or Mars.

But how much will it cost? NASA does not have a sterling record of building things on budget. The Senate committee is giving the SLS program -- and the Orion crew capsule to ride on it -- the amount requested in the White House budget, but has imposed cost caps: $11.5 billion for SLS and $5.5 billion for Orion through FY 2017. We'll see how it goes.

What's the next move? In a normal political year, the conflicting House and Senate appropriations bill would go to a conference committee that would work out the differences and send a compromise bill to the floors of both houses for a vote. During that process, there would be chances for the public -- like Planetary Society members and supporters -- to let their representatives know what they want them to do. This contentious year, the NASA funding is expected to get wrapped up into one large omnibus appropriations bill that will be negotiated behind the scenes and then pushed through Congress without much chance for constituents to weigh in. With the fiscal year ending at the end of this month, Congress has begun to move a Continuing Resolution to keep the government open through November 18 to give it time to come to agreement on the omnibus appropriations bill.

The sagging economy and rampaging political acrimony are making it hard to keep space exploration healthy and moving forward, but the Senate's proposed bill for NASA provides a much stronger foundation than the House bill and is worthy of supporting.

It's going to take all of us working together to preserve a future in space.

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