White House Releases 2014 NASA Budget, and (As Usual) It’s Mixed News

The entire universe in blog form
April 11 2013 8:00 AM

NASA 2014 Budget: More for Asteroids, Less for Planets and Education

NASA logo

Image credit: NASA

The White House released its requested federal budget yesterday, which includes NASA funding. Trying to figure it all out is a little difficult—NASA does a lot of different things—but I have some overall impressions. I’ll note that I’m basing what follows on the released budget, a presentation by NASA, and my own experience working for companies that contracted with NASA. I’ll also note what follows are my opinions based on what I know. If more info comes along, I’ll happily re-examine my own conclusions. Don’t consider this final!

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!  

Keep in mind, too, this is a budget request: The President submits this to Congress, who will then haggle. Also bear in mind that NASA’s share of the entire federal budget is a mere 0.5 percent. For every dollar spent by the government, cut a penny in half. That’s what goes to NASA.

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The Whole Schmeer

The total proposed NASA budget for Fiscal Year 2014 (which starts Oct. 1, 2013) is $17.7 billion. This is $55 million lower than 2012, and $170 lower than 2013. That’s a drop of roughly only 1 percent, which these days can be considered holding steady.

That’s the overall budget, but the devil’s in the details, of course. With a fixed budget and changing needs, some things win and others lose. Clearly, the specifics are what are important, because some have changed a lot.

What follows are some specifics, and my rant opinion on them. These numbers are from NASA’s official release about the budget. They also have some details in the budget summary.

Asteroid retrieval

asteroid capture mission
Proposed asteroid capture and retrieval mission concept.

Image credit: Rick Sternbach/KISS

The splashiest news is that NASA is indeed funding a mission to find, snag, bag, and bring a 5-7 meter wide asteroid to an Earth-accessible orbit. This is a fascinating idea, funded at $105 million in FY14 (which is starter money for the multiple-year project). The breakdown goes like this: finding near-Earth asteroids in general gets an addition of $20 million (on top of $20 they already got in the last budget), and of the $45 million allocated generally to space technology in the budget, $38 million of it goes to investigating an electric propulsion drive using solar power, which would be the main drive of the asteroid mission. An additional $7 million goes to general asteroid hazard mitigation technology. Finally, $40 million will go toward figuring out to how nab “uncooperative” targets—asteroids that spin or tumble—which will be a major engineering task of the mission.

In a perfect world I would be all for this. However, as I said, NASA has a fixed budget, so that money has to come from somewhere… and the total mission cost over the next few years will be $2.6 billion (not including the cost to send a crew up there to poke at it). That’s a lot. It doesn’t look like the White House will increase NASA funding for this, so that money will have to be found. *

Planetary Science

Last year, the President asked for a brutal $300 million dollar cut to planetary sciences. In this year’s budget, planetary science gets $1.2 billion, which Casey Dreier from The Planetary Society reports maintains that huge hit (even though Congress originally approved more money for it).

In the press conference, NASA chief Charles Bolden noted that some missions need less money now—Curiosity, for example, is on Mars and so does not need as much in its budget as it once did. That’s true enough, but doesn’t explain the huge drop in funding. As Dreier points out, it looks like there’s some robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul going on, which I expected. Missions and other work got moved around a bit, so now planetary science gets a couple of projects that used to be under other umbrellas*, and has to pay for them. In terms of actual money going to planetary work, they get a pretty big cut.

There is some good news in there: Included is seed money for the 2020 launch of another Mars rover, and the launch of the MAVEN Mars atmospheric mission in 2014. They’ll also be launching OSIRIS-Rex in 2016, an exciting mission to near-Earth asteroid 1999 RQ36, which includes a sample return in 2023.

But overall, cutting planetary science is crazy. It’s one of the leading faces NASA has with the public—people gathered in Times Square to watch Curiosity land, for criminy sake!—and those missions are among the most successful scientifically. We need more of them, not fewer.

I know NASA has a fixed budget, I know everyone is screaming “Austerity!”, and I know the government wants to shave every dime it can. But investing in this kind of science always pays off. Also, the public loves it, so it’s a political win.

Unless I’m missing something, cutting funding of planetary research is nuts. Keep your eyes on The Planetary Society; they’ve been quite vocal about all this.

Education

Continuing the bad news, education takes a big hit, going from $137 million to $94 million, a 33 percent cut. Some of this is in the form of consolidating NASA’s educational efforts with the Department of Education. Right now, a lot of NASA education is already centralized, but quite a bit is done on a mission basis; each mission has a percentage of its money go toward education (and just so’s you know, I did Education and Public Outreach for several NASA missions over the course of six years). This new consolidation idea wasn’t spelled out completely in the budget release or the press conference. While saving money sounds like a good idea—and a while back I advocated for more cooperation with the DoE, to take advantage of their experience—what happens to those folks working on mission E/PO? Will they simply lose their jobs, or will they be told to take new jobs and move, or what?

I imagine a lot of E/PO folks are very worried right now. I wonder what Congress will say to this cut?

Crewed Flight

NASA is currently building the Orion capsule to be used to take humans into space. This has been “fully funded”, with the first planned uncrewed launch in 2014. The Space Launch System (SLS)—a heavy-lift replacement for the Shuttle—is also fully funded. The Shuttle funding has of course been zeroed out, so in essence that’s like $600 million back into the NASA ecosystem, which helps.

NASA SLS art
Artist's illustration of an SLS launch. Click to enlaunchenate.

Image credit: NASA/MSFC

Right now, the plan is for SLS to have its first test flight in 2017, and a crewed launch in 2021 (the mission to take humans to the asteroid towed into near-Earth space would be planned for 2025 or so). I’ll note some members of Congress are openly advocating for a return to the Moon around that time as well.

I wonder, though. The SLS is a good idea in principle, but I worry. The Shuttle was supposed to launch every two weeks and be much cheaper than comparable rockets. It never came close to that. Commercial space ventures can do this sort of thing much cheaper than NASA can; SpaceX is demonstrating that, and there are several other contenders.

So do we really need the SLS? My feelings run parallel to my friend and space historian Andy Chaikin’s; NASA needs to be very aware of costs and need. I like the idea of having a backup to commercial rockets, but when it costs so much, that makes me uneasy. Constellation, the first follow-up proposed for the Shuttle, overran its budget and got so far behind schedule President Obama canceled it (and SLS took its place).

If NASA’s budget were upped by, say, two or three billion bucks, and it’s demonstrated that the SLS is under control and needed, I’d support all this happily. But with the budget the way it is, and a new very expensive mission to an asteroid is added in, I wonder over these big expenditures for a new rocket.

…And The Rest

There’s a host of other stuff in the budget. James Webb Space Telescope will see an extra $140 million over last year, which is expected to meet its launch date of October 2018. Commercial space funding goes from about $400 to $800 million, which is expected and welcome. I like the idea of partnering with business for “routine” launches since, as I pointed out above, they can do it cheaper (and be more flexible about it, too). This also reduces reliance on having to pay Russia for launches.

I was glad to see Earth Science go from $1.76 billion to $1.85 billion, with lots of climate missions. NASA (partnering with NOAA) is on the forefront of investigating climate change, and more power (and dollars) to them for it.

There’s a lot more in the budget, but for now I think that’s enough. This budget is preliminary and therefore bound to change quite a bit. To be honest: it better change. I’m happy with some bits, but very unhappy with others. It always seems to come down to not having quite enough money to do what needs to be done, and to be frank, that’s dumb. NASA’s budget is a pittance compared to many other agencies and the federal budget as a whole. It costs a lot just to get NASA able to do the basics, and what it costs to do all this right is only a little bit more. This budget, like every NASA budget for the past several years, strikes me as penny wise and pound foolish. It’s like buying a car and saying you can’t afford to put gas in it.

Perhaps Penny4NASA has the right idea: Increase NASA’s budget to a full penny per dollar—1 whole percent of the budget—and see where they can take us. I’m betting it’s a long, long way.

[*Correction (Apr. 11, 2013 at 14:15 UTC): I originally wrote that the asteroid mission funding would come out of planetary research; however, the $105 million is new money added to the budget.]