White House asks for brutal planetary NASA budget cuts

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Feb. 13 2012 2:09 PM

White House asks for brutal planetary NASA budget cuts

The White House has released its Presidential budget request for fiscal year 2013 today, including the budget for NASA, and as usual there is some good news and some bad. But the good news is tepid, and the bad news is, well, pretty damn bad. I can lay some of this blame at NASA's feet -- a long history of being over budget and behind schedule looms large -- but also at the President himself. Cutting NASA's budget at all is, simply, dumb. I know we're in an economic crisis (though there are indications it's getting better), but there are hugely larger targets than NASA. If this budget goes through Congress as is, it will mean the end of a lot of NASA projects and future missions.


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!  

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The budget

The President's FY13 budget for NASA is $17.7 billion in total. This is marginally less than last year. In most cases, the budget for science is stable, with a lot of missions getting modest increases. After perusing the individual budgets, it looks to me that most missions that are getting reductions are either ones that have been up a while and are winding down, ones near launch that are built and ready to go and therefore costs are smaller than during development, or ones that have had launch delays (due to tech issues with the launch systems).

Overall, astrophysics, Earth science, and Heliophysics (Sun studies) did OK. Again, some individual missions got increases and some decreases, but in general the budgets are stable. Funding for commercial spaceflight got a massive increase, more than doubling last year's $400M budget. I'm all for that, as of course is the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. I've been vocal about that, and I think handing off launch and other capabilities to commercial ventures is a good way for NASA to save money in the long run.

Some cuts didn't make sense to me. Education, for example, drops from $136M to $100M. Why? That money funds a vast amount of educational outreach -- and I should know; I was funded by this for several years when I was at Sonoma State University creating educational materials for various NASA satellites. That funding does a huge amount of good for schoolkids, and cutting it is a mistake.

And it gets worse. A lot worse.



The bad news for Mars

However, planetary exploration has gotten creamed. Its budget overall drops from $1.5 billion to $1.2, a very deep cut that doesn't just threaten but destroys near-future Mars exploration as well as future big grand missions to the outer planets in the tradition of Voyager, Cassini, and others.

There's no easy way to say this: these cuts are devastating. The President's request for just Mars exploration is $361 million, a crippling $226M drop in funding over the FY12 estimate, a 38.5% cut.

Read that again: a 38.5% cut. This will effectively halt the new exploration of Mars. It means pulling out of planning the ExoMars mission with the European Space Agency -- effectively cancelling the mission, which will not make the Europeans happy -- and also halting planning on a 2016 mission. There is still funding for the MAVEN mission scheduled for launch next year, but at reduced levels.

In my opinion, part of this is the fault of NASA: Curiosity, the rover on its way to Mars right now, was well over budget. Even after all these years, NASA still has a hard time getting budgets right, which is frustrating. However, this particular cut in the budget is madness. It was fought mightily by NASA, but the Office of Management and Budget apparently ignored all the advice from scientists and managers at NASA, cutting the program anyway. Ed Weiler, who was the head of the NASA Science Mission directorate, quit in protest over these cuts. I've had my disagreements with Ed on budget specifics over the years, but he has been a big defender of NASA from government cuts. For him to quit over this is a pretty strong indicator of how bad it is. Read that link to get all the details; but it's not a happy story.

Bill Nye, speaking on behalf of The Planetary Society, says it best:

The priorities reflected in this budget would take us down the wrong path. Science is the part of NASA that’s actually conducting interesting and scientifically important missions. Spacecraft sent to Mars, Saturn, Mercury, the Moon, comets, and asteroids have been making incredible discoveries, with more to come from recent launches to Jupiter, the Moon, and Mars. The country needs more of these robotic space exploration missions, not less.

He's right. The US has had an incredibly strong Mars program which has returned amazing science, as well as garnered enthusiastic public support. No other country has been able to do as well getting to Mars as we have. Of all the pieces of NASA to cut, this should be the very last one to see a reduction! It's maddening, bizarre, and simply dumb.



What cost JWST and Curiosity?

NASA chief Charles Bolden tried to spin all this positively, but I have a hard time seeing it that way. And it's hard to see how James Webb Space Telescope did not have an impact here. JWST is getting a large $109M (21%) increase as it gets nearer to completion. My thoughts on this are on record, for example here, here, and here. Basically, this mission on its own is taking the lion's share a big chunk of NASA's science funding, and if NASA's overall budget remains stable JWST must perforce siphon money from other missions. Administrator Bolden wouldn't specify what part of the budget would get cut to accommodate JWST, but given the massive slashing of Mars funding, well. That seems clear enough. [Update: It has been pointed out to me that the increase in JWST's budget is smaller than what was taken from Mars. True, but as I pointed out last year, an additional $500+ million was recently given to JWST. I was considering that as well when I wrote the above paragraph.]

At some level the Mars rover Curiosity, currently on its way to Mars, must have played a role here too. It was also overbudget, though by a smaller total amount than JWST. But its impact has been significant.

I'll note that I think JWST is far enough along to make sure it gets finished and launched, but the funding for it should be added to NASA's budget, not subtracted from other places. I'm not happy with the way JWST was handled (the amount it's over budget is staggering to say the least) and NASA really needs to gets its head in the game when it comes to figuring this stuff out.

But the thing is, we shouldn't even have to make these choices. We shouldn't have to choose between one ground-breaking scientific mission and another. The reason we do is because NASA's budget is so small in the first place. It really speaks volumes about where science and exploration stand as an American value.



The next step

Mind you, this budget is not set in stone. This is simply the President's request, which then goes to Congress. Over the past few years, Obama's request has been for increases, with Congress threatening to cut it. Now, however, this budget comes pre-cut to Congress. The news isn't all bad, though: some members of Congress have said this budget is not satisfactory (like Adam Schiff (D-Pasadena), whose district includes JPL), and will fight to make it better. The Planetary Society will be rallying its members to talk to their Congress critters and increase NASA's slice for science from 27.5% to a solid 30%, enough to re-fund Mars exploration.

My opinion hasn't really changed in years. NASA is a tiny, tiny part of the federal budget, far less than 1%. There are other places where money can be found, other places where cuts make more sense.

I've made this analogy before: if you have a hard drive full of 4 Gb movie files, you don't make room by deleting 100kB text files! You go after the big targets, which is far more efficient. Reducing NASA's budget for Mars exploration frees up 0.01% of the federal budget. That's it. One ten-thousandth of what we spend overall, a hundredth of a penny for every dollar.

What does that mean in more understandable terms? Over the past few years, the rate of money spent in Afghanistan and Iraq is about 20 million dollars per hour. In other words, the amount of money being cut from Mars exploration is equal to what we were spending on the War on Terror in just 15 hours.

You might want to read that again. For the cost of less than a single day on the War on Terror, we could have a robust and far-reaching program to explore Mars, look for signs of life on another planet, increase our overall science knowledge, and inspire a future generation of kids.

Our priorities on national spending could use some major overhauling. Science is the future. Our economy depends on many things, but science, engineering, and technology represent a huge portion of its support.

It's simple: cutting back on science is cutting our future's throat. And this budget is reaching for the knife.

So I'm reaching for my keyboard. I'll be contacting my Senators and Representative. If you're an American citizen, I suggest you do the same.



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