Bad Astronomy
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Nov. 14 2005 10:09 PM


Note added November 17, 2005: The Senate passed the budget as well.

There were some interesting news items out of NASA in the past day. I got some email about all this from the American Astronomical Society (AAS), which issues press releases pertaining to astronomy, space science, and of course NASA.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  


The first bit of news out of NASA is that the control and management of the Robotic Lunar Exploration Program has been given to the Ames Research Center (which is local to me) in Mountain View, California. Interesting. I heard some time ago (I do have some sources) that this might happen, but now it's a done deal. Of course, whether we actually go back to the Moon or not is up to how NASA gets funded (Bush is the one who created this "vision", and there is no guarantee the next President will also want to pursue this line of exploration). Speaking of which...

The second news item is that the NASA budget, which is controlled by Congress, was passed by the House (and is expected to be passed by the Senate). I was curious to see what would happen in the House, as arguably NASA's biggest friend there is Tom Delay. Basically, the total amount for NASA (16.457 billion dollars) is about the same as for last year. Bear in mind that many other budgets will be decreased by about 2%, and this can be considered a minor victory for NASA. However, even after the budget passes, it may get cut by that 2%. Welcome to politics.

Some specifics:

1) The budget for Science, Aeronautics, and Exploration has increased 7.6% from last year. It looks like much of this is due to the increased spending needed to develop the new Constellation Systems program, the part of NASA that will create new rockets to replace the Shuttle. That part of the budget tripled to $1.1 billion.


2) This little bomb was tucked away in the email:

Congress has allocated $271 million for the Hubble Space Telescope in anticipation of a servicing mission to repair the telescope. This amount is $50 million more than the President's requested level.

Holy cow! Now, this does not mean it's a done deal. NASA has already said that there must be two successful Shuttle missions in a row before they will consider servicing Hubble. But this is still a good sign. Still, I'll note that in a budget that has not increased, we're talking a "zero sum game": if some program gets increased, another decreases. I'll need to look over the budget myself and see what's what, but with the James Webb Space Telescope getting into budget overruns (big ones), this may be big trouble for other, less sexy missions. I'll note I work on some of those less sexy missions, so this is of personal concern to me.

3) Congressional earmarks (dedicated money chosen by Congress which must be spent on specific projects) are loved and hated by the people affected. It's great to see some projects funded that might get passed over by NASA if they were only allowed to be in a general fund, but maybe NASA is better at making that decision than a (biased) congresscritter who may be looking to fund something in their home district. This really is just pork-barrel politics, and it rubs me the wrong way, even if good things get funded this way. This year, Congress earmarked a record $321 million. Wow.


This specific earmark caught my eye:

"$1,000,000 for Downey, California related to housing of a Space Shuttle mock-up"

That's a lot of cash to build a model of a rocket that has only a few years left in the program. Hmmmm.

4) The National Science Foundation, a huge science grant-sponsoring organization, got an increase of 3% to their budget! That's wonderful news.

5) Mars exploration funding remains constant at $680 million.

An interesting analysis was posted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It's good reading.

And in a final analysis of one NASA program... renowned physicist Stephen Hawking recently spoke in California. In the Q&A session at the end, he was asked what he thought about Bush's plan to go to Mars. He replied simply, "Stupid".