Jack KiralyJul 03, 2024

Charting the course for discovery

Capitol Hill briefing aims to address challenges and opportunities for space science

On June 28, 2024, The Planetary Society hosted a policy briefing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., with the goal of educating congressional aides and advisors on the fundamental elements that drive NASA’s success in space science and the challenges facing the enterprise of scientific discovery. To cover these wide-ranging topics, the event focused on three key themes: the Decadal Surveys, the space workforce, and the intersection of human and robotic exploration. These themes gave congressional staff an overview of the foundational documents that define NASA’s strategy for advancing space exploration and that contribute to scientific discovery.

2024 Congressional science briefing panel
2024 Congressional science briefing panel Science briefing panelists, from left to right: Dr. Ralph McNutt (JHU APL), Dr. Paul Cassak (WVU), Dr. Alycia Weinberger (Carnegie Science); and moderator Jack Kiraly (The Planetary Society).Image: The Planetary Society

The panel included experts who could speak to these themes and provide insights into their importance for policymakers:

In addition, noted planetary scientist and Society board member Jim Bell provided opening remarks, setting the tone for the event. The room was packed with a diverse group of congressional staff representing House members and Senators, Democrats and Republicans, and constituencies across the country.

The event was a collaboration with the American Astronomical Society and the American Geophysical Union, two prominent organizations that represent professional scientists in the Earth and space sciences. The Planetary Society organized the event in conjunction with the Congressional Planetary Science Caucus, the premiere space interest group on Capitol Hill. Recently, the Caucus co-chairs - Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) and Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE) - led a letter with Rep. Glenn Ivey (D-MD) to advocate for increased funding for NASA science to counteract the effects of inflation, workforce pressures, and budget cuts. Over 10% of the House of Representatives signed on to this letter.

Play by play

Following Jim Bell’s opening remarks, each panelist had an opportunity to present their expertise and discuss each of the key themes.

2024 Congressional science briefing
2024 Congressional science briefing Jim Bell, President of The Planetary Society from 2008-2020, giving his opening remarks in front of the logo for the Planetary Science Caucus.Image: The Planetary Society

First up, Alycia Weinberger spoke about the origin and importance of the Decadal Surveys as a way for the scientific community to identify key science questions, objectives, and priorities. “We stand on the threshold of new endeavors that will transform not only our understanding of the Universe but also humanity's place in it,” she declared, highlighting the profound impact of these surveys. Weinberger’s presentation detailed how the collaborative and rigorous approach of the surveys has successfully guided the space program and policymakers, turning visionary projects like the James Webb Space Telescope into reality. Weinberger also emphasized the role of public interest and engagement in this process, noting that the Decadal Surveys serve to inspire and involve people across the nation in the exploration of our Solar System and beyond.

However, current fiscal constraints and economic forces have put NASA and the whole scientific community in a tough situation where progress on any flight program has been made even more difficult and costly.

“We absolutely appreciate every penny of taxpayer dollars we get. And simultaneously, we're really struggling right now,” shared Paul Cassak in his earnest and heartfelt remarks. A professor at West Virginia University, Cassak highlighted the critical importance of nurturing the space science workforce and supporting the next generation of explorers in the process. Despite the growing interest in space sciences, citing personal experience seeing a 60% increase in applications for certain programs, Cassak shared that many students and faculty do not have the support they need from government partners. Cassak emphasized that the growing interest highlights an opportunity to expand the pool of future space scientists, but current funding levels fall short of keeping pace with inflation and the increasing number of students.

Finally, Ralph McNutt took the audience on a historical journey, tracing the evolution of U.S. space exploration from its nascent stages to the cutting-edge missions of today. As a scientist who has worked on some of the most notable space science missions, McNutt emphasized the enduring importance of visionary projects like Europa Clipper and the Voyager probes. He argued that maintaining U.S. leadership in space requires more than just ambition — it demands consistent and realistic funding strategies. His closing remark encapsulated the essence of his message: “Vision without execution is hallucination. Vision is great, but you've actually got to put together the pieces so that you can actually go ahead and do what you said you were going to do.”

The big picture

A key element of successful advocacy is timing. Just two days prior to the briefing, the House Committee on Appropriations took its first step to offer a counter-proposal to the President’s Budget Request (PBR) for fiscal year 2025 that was released in March. The White House proposal was much lower and less ambitious than in previous years, due in large part to indiscriminate fiscal limitations that were placed on federal spending as part of a deal to avoid a default on the nation’s debt. The new House proposal includes an increase to NASA’s overall budget of slightly more than 1%, below the rate of inflation, and holds NASA’s Science Mission Directorate flat at the amount allocated for the current funding year, $7.334 billion. The proposal includes limited details, meaning that we do not currently know how much the legislation would fund specific divisions or programs.

FY2025 budget proposals
FY2025 budget proposals Comparison of the fiscal year 2025 budget proposals for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate to the baseline budget estimation from before the enactment of fiscal constraints in FY 2024. The House proposal only includes a general funding level for NASA SMD, with detailed information forthcoming.Image: The Planetary Society

On the other side of the Hill, the U.S. Senate is anticipated to make its own counter-counter proposal in the coming weeks. The end of the fiscal year is coming up on Sept. 30, and Congress will need to act quickly as the number of days they'll be able to act on legislation winnows. It is imperative that events like this briefing and advocates like you remind legislators that among the many worthwhile functions of government, space exploration provides jobs, fosters international partnerships, and expands human knowledge of the Cosmos.

How can I help?

I’m glad you asked. Right now is a difficult time for the future of space science and exploration. In the next fiscal year, NASA needs to make a down payment on the billion-dollar technology development program needed to build the Habitable Worlds Observatory, jumpstart the Mars Sample Return campaign once a new mission design is selected, develop the means to safely return humans to the Moon for the first time in over half a century, and ensure the hundreds of flight missions and thousands of research grants are fully supported.

To falter at this point will mean more layoffs at NASA Centers and partners, lapses in our commitment to allies, mission delays that will only increase their lifetime cost, and a cession of global leadership in space science.

For those in the United States, encourage your elected officials to join the Planetary Science Caucus. This action is open to all residents. The Caucus is a bipartisan, bicameral group of legislators committed to advancing policy that supports space science, research, and exploration.

Outside of the U.S.? Become a member of The Planetary Society and join the growing chorus of global space advocates.

The Time is Now.

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