Draft NASA Bill Defunds Asteroid Mission, Restores Education

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
June 18 2013 11:00 AM

Draft NASA Bill Defunds Asteroid Mission, Restores Education

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We still don't know which way is up for the 2014 NASA budget.

Photo by NASA, modified by Phil Plait

Not too surprisingly, there's been some ongoing tension between Congress and the White House over NASA funding for a while now. For some bizarre reason, the Obama administration wants to curtail NASA’s education efforts pretty severely, which in my opinion is not just a huge mistake but one that borders on insane. NASA outreach is a shiny gold star for the agency.

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 House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology will be holding hearings on Wednesday about NASA funding. SpaceNews released a summary of the draft congressional bill authorizing funds for NASA, and it has some pretty interesting things in it.

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About education, it says:

There’s bipartisan agreement that the Administration’s proposal to re-organize NASA’s STEM education program is questionable.  This bill maintains FY 2013 organization and funding level.

“Questionable.” Heh. My opinion on this is clear, and I’m glad to see Congress stating they want education and outreach to be a priority for NASA. You can read more about this situation at the AURA website.

About human spaceflight, it has this very interesting bit:

In the near-term, the primary objectives for NASA human spaceflight include:
[…] Continued commitment to develop the Space Launch System and Orion Crew Vehicle to return to the Moon and beyond, but no funding for an asteroid rendezvous mission.

Emphasis mine. Apparently, the White House’s proposal to snag, bag, and tag an asteroid is not a priority for Congress. That’s not surprising, as it would be expensive, and it’s not clear if some other part of NASA would be hit to pay for it. I like the idea of such a mission, but as I’ve said all along, I’d like to know where the money is coming from, and it better not be from some other worthy NASA project.

Now comes the monkey in the wrench. About planetary exploration, the draft bill says:

Relying on the guidance of National Academy of Sciences Decadal Surveys, this bill restores proper balance to NASA’s science portfolio.  NASA Earth Science is reduced to 2008 spending levels to provide better balance of funding for NASA’s planetary science programs.  Thirteen different federal agencies fund $2.5 billion annually in climate science research, but only NASA has space exploration as its primary mission.  NASA is still involved in climate change research—spending $1.2 billion annually. NASA must remain focused on building weather satellites for NOAA to meet our nation’s urgent weather-monitoring needs, as well as building LANDSAT satellites for the US Geological Survey.  

Well now. I have a few things to say about that.

First, I like the idea of restoring planetary exploration. This is another area where I strongly disagree with the Obama administration, which cut $300 million from this extremely successful program. Outside of straight astronomy (like Hubble), the planetary program is the most visible of what NASA does, even more so than the Space Station. And they’ve put the funds to great use, sending probes all over the solar system with far greater accuracy and success than any other space agency on Earth. Curiosity, Cassini, MESSENGER, Dawn … the list is lengthy. Cutting funds now would damage the future of the program for decades; it takes a long time to design, plan, and execute a mission. Congress wants to put that money back into planetary exploration.

Not that it’s a lock. Casey Dreier at the Planetary Society blog reports that a leaked NASA draft about appropriations indicates NASA itself will take any extra money for planetary exploration and redirect it to other projects. That strikes me as more foolishness. Hopefully Congress will disallow this; I have notified my own representative to let him know.

And finally, I have to comment on the bit about the climate change portion of the congressional statement. Reducing Earth observations to pay for planetary exploration is just as bad and just as irrational as what the White House is trying to do. Yes, other agencies study global warming, but NASA has a huge role in this. It partners with these other agencies to give us as complete a view of Earth as we can get. This issue is one of the most important ones we face as a species, and having NASA on our side is a damn good idea.

So why would Congress want to cut out climate change funding? Or should I phrase it as, “Why would the Republican-controlled Committee on Science want to cut funding for climate change research?” I did some poking around online, and every single Republican on the Science Committee ranges from being at least wishy-washy about climate change (saying things like the science isn’t conclusive, which is simply untrue) to full-blown global warming denialism (such as Lamar Smith, the committee chairman, who I’ll note is a proponent of space exploration; Paul “Lies from the Pit of Hell” Broun; Dana Rohrabacher; Jim Sensenbrenner; and others).

So I smell partisan science denial in this attempt to defund NASA’s climate change research. I’m all for getting more money to planetary exploration, but not at the cost of studying our own planet.

This draft bill, if it proves accurate and the basis for the congressional appropriations for NASA, is a mixed bag. Agree, disagree? Contact your representative and let him or her know.

Tip o’ the nose cone to my friend and astronomer Heidi Hammel.