Earth Science Takes Hit in Proposed House NASA Authorization Bill

Earth Science Takes Hit in Proposed House NASA Authorization Bill

The NASA authorization bill for 2016 and 2017 that will be marked up by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee on Thursday would make deep cuts to NASA’s earth science program under either of the two funding scenarios laid out in the bill – “aspirational” or “constrained.”  Top-line funding for NASA would be the same as the President’s FY2016 budget request ($18.5 billion) under the aspirational level or the same as its current funding ($18.0 billion) under the constrained scenario.  Overall, the bill favors human space exploration, planetary science, and astrophysics.

According to a copy of the legislation obtained by, most of the 129-page bill is policy provisions that appear to be virtually identical to those passed by the House in February in the 2015 NASA Authorization Act.  That bill’s funding recommendations were only for FY2015, which is in progress and reflected what had already been appropriated. This Republican-sponsored bill substitutes funding recommendations for the next two years, FY2016 and FY2017.

In theory, the government should make policy and then propose (and enact) budgets to implement the policy, but in reality it is often the reverse.  The Washington adage that “budgets make policy” is often true, and this bill provides an example.  While the policy section endorses the National Research Council’s Decadal Survey for earth sciences and directs NASA to implement a program that is consistent with its recommendations and priorities, and to ensure a “steady cadence of large, medium and small missions,” the funding section cuts the earth science budget to an extent that it seems impossible to achieve that policy.

The funding section is complicated because two budget levels are recommended depending on whether Congress removes the caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA).

  • The first set of funding recommendations assumes the BCA caps are lifted.  A press release from committee Republicans refers to those levels as “aspirational.” 
  • The second set assumes the BCA caps are not lifted; the press release calls that set “constrained.” 
  • A third scenario is mentioned – where the funding falls somewhere in between – in which case any additional funds above the BCA caps would be applied proportionately across all of NASA’s funding accounts.

In total, the aspirational level for FY2016 is the same as the President’s request of $18.529 billion.  The constrained level is what NASA received for FY2015 — $18.010 billion.  There are many differences, however, in how the legislation would allocate that money compared to the President’s request.

Table 2 in’s fact sheet on NASA’s FY2016 budget request displays the figures in the House bill compared to NASA’s current funding (FY2015) and the President’s request for FY2016.

The proposed cuts to NASA’s earth science program are likely to be the topic of strong debate at the markup.   Whether compared to NASA’s current FY2015 budget or the President’s FY2016 request, under either the aspirational or constrained scenario, earth science would be sharply reduced.

NASA’s earth science program is funded at $1.773 billion in FY2015.  The request for FY2016 is $1.947 billion.   Under the bill’s aspirational scenario, it would receive $1.450 billion in FY2016.  Under the constrained scenario, it would receive $1.199 billion.  Using current funding and the aspirational scenario for FY2016, it would be an approximately 18 percent cut.  Compared to the President’s request, it would be a roughly 26 percent cut.  If the BCA caps are not removed and the constrained scenario plays out for FY2016, it would be about a 32 percent cut compared to current funding or a 38 percent cut compared to the President’s request.

House and Senate Republicans on NASA’s authorization committees argue that NASA’s unique expertise is space exploration and studying the Earth should not be one of its priorities.   Although many also are climate change skeptics, publicly they do not frame their arguments in that context, instead insisting that other agencies should pay for that research, not NASA.  Republicans on this committee proposed deep cuts to NASA’s earth science budget in 2013 and Democrats introduced their own bill with more favorable funding.  The Republican bill was approved, and the Democratic bill rejected, on party line votes in committee.  That bill was never taken to the floor for a vote by the House, however.  Instead, the House has since passed two NASA authorization bills that avoided partisan discord over funding by using figures that already were approved in the appropriations process.  That tactic cannot be used this time since the bill is for future years.

Space technology is another area that would suffer compared to the President’s request.   It is currently funded at $596 million.  The President’s request for FY2016 is $725 million.  Under the bill’s aspirational scenario, it would receive $596 million – its current level – for FY2016.  Compared to the request, that is a cut of about 18 percent.  Under the constrained scenario, space technology would receive $500 million, approximately 16 percent less than today and about 31 percent less than the President’s request.

By comparison, NASA’s human exploration program – the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion, and associated ground systems – and planetary science and astrophysics fare much better. The commercial crew program is fully funded under the aspirational scenario.

SLS is currently funded at $1.7 billion.  The President’s request would reduce that to $1.357 billion.  The House bill would restore it to $1.7 billion for FY2016 under either the aspirational or constrained scenarios.  Similarly, the President requested less for Orion in FY2016 ($1.096 billion) than it currently receives ($1.194 billion) and the House bill would provide $1.2 billion under both the aspirational and constrained scenarios.  So while the House bill is a significant increase compared to the President’s request, it is essentially level funding compared to what Congress provided for FY2015.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress complain that the Obama White House underfunds SLS and Orion knowing full well that they are congressional priorities because the White House favors the commercial crew program.  The House bill does provide the full request for commercial crew in FY2016 ($1.244 billion) under the aspirational scenario, but less ($1.136 billion) in the constrained scenario.  The latter would be a cut of about 9 percent compared to the request, but a significant increase (about 41 percent) over the current funding level of $805 million.

Planetary science, another congressional favorite, is funded at $1.438 billion this year and the President’s request would cut that down to $1.361 billion.  The House bill instead would raise it to $1.5 billion regardless of what happens with the BCA caps. The bill states that up to $30 million is specifically for the Astrobiology Institute.   Astrophysics (excluding the James Webb Space Telescope, which has its own budget account) is currently funded at $685 million and the President’s request would increase it to $709 million.  The House bill would raise it even more, to $731 million, under the aspirational scenario.  In the constrained scenario, it would receive the $709 million requested.

Overall, the House bill demonstrates well known differences between Republicans and the Obama White House over NASA’s priorities.  Congressional Democrats also disagree with the Obama Administration on many of those issues, but earth science funding is one area where Democrats, in the past at least, have tried to protect NASA’s program.

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