NASA's FY2014 Budget Request Includes Asteroid Retrieval Mission; Earth Science and STEM Changes

NASA's FY2014 Budget Request Includes Asteroid Retrieval Mission; Earth Science and STEM Changes

President Obama sent his FY2014 budget request to Congress today, nine-and-a-half weeks late.   The $1.058 trillion request includes $17.7 billion for NASA.  Highlights will be discussed during a NASA media telecon at 3:00 pm ET this afternoon. An earlier media briefing, at 1:30 pm ET, will discuss the overall budget request for federal research and development, including NASA, NOAA, NIH and NSF.

The President continues to oppose sequestration and his FY2014 budget does not take it into account.  Consequently, NASA’s FY2014 budget request is about the same as its FY2013 request following the flat-line spending plan it assumed last year. 

NASA’s documentation accompanying the FY2014 request does not allow comparisons to what Congress appropriated for FY2013 — the current fiscal year — because the request was formulated prior to Congress completing action on the FY2013 budget.    The numbers in the tables accompanying NASA’s request are based on the first Continuing Resolution (CR) that passed Congress last September, not the second CR that became law in March and ultimately set government spending levels for this year.  That law cut NASA’s FY2013 funding from the $17.771 billion requested to something in the neighborhood of $16.6 billion.  NASA has not publicly stated even the total that it received for FY2013.   That and details of how it will be spent at the account and program, project and activity (PPA) level apparently will not be revealed until NASA submits a congressionally-required operating plan to Congress on May 10.

Leaving aside questions about current year spending, the FY2014 request includes three major changes.

  • A new Asteroid Retrieval Initiative, with $105 million requested for FY2014, to study the feasibility of capturing a 7-10 meter diameter, 500 ton asteroid, bringing it to the Earth-Moon system using a robotic probe powered by solar electric propulsion, and sending astronauts to explore it perhaps as early as 2021.  The $105 million is split among three tasks:
    • Identify:  additional $20 million (on top of existing $20 million) for the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) to augment ground-based efforts to identify and characterize asteroids with the goal of identifying a candidate asteroid for this mission by 2016;
    • Redirect:   $45 million for the new Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) to accelerate development of high-power solar electric propulsion;
    • Explore: $40 million for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) to study how the Orion spacecraft could rendezvous with the asteroid and how astronauts could interact with it.
  • Two significant changes to the Earth Science portfolio
    • NASA will assume responsibility for climate sensors that were to be incorporated onto NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS).   Congress has strongly encouraged NOAA to focus on its weather forecasting mission.
    • NASA will take the lead on determining how to ensure the continuity of the satellite land remote sensing data set tht began with the first Landsat satellite in 1972.   Landsat 8 (also called the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, or LDCM) was launched earlier this year and planning must begin for the next in the series to avoid any gaps in data acquisition.  The Obama Administration wanted to transfer the program to the U.S Geological Survey (USGS), which operates the Landsat satellites and is knowledgable about the user community for that data.  Congress rejected the idea because of concern that the cost would overwhelm over USGS priorities.
  • Impacts on NASA’s education portfolio due a government-wide restructuring of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education programs.   The White House is consolidating most of the government’s STEM projects that are currently in 13 agencies into three agencies:  the Department of Education (K-12 programs), the National Science Foundation (undergraduate and graduate programs), and the Smithsonian (informal and in-situ education).   NASA’s FY2014 education request of $94 million will fund NASA-specific efforts such as Space Grant, EPSCoR, MUREP and GLOBE.  The $94 million includes “$67.5 million for high-performing existing programs, and an additional $26.8 million previously distributed throughout the agency’s mission directorates” according to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).  OMB also says that $47.5 million of NASA’s education programs were “redirected” to the other agencies.  NASA’s “education” budget request last year was $100 million, but it is difficult to compare that with the $94 million requested this year since that budget did not include the funding in the mission directorate accounts.

The Asteroid Retrieval Initiative is likely to be the focus of attention, although NASA officials stress that the agency must first complete a feasibility study before offering details.  A Mission Concept Review is expected to be completed this summer.   The concept was outlined in a 2012 Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) report that estimated the total cost of such a mission at $2.6 billion.   NASA officials caution against using that as a cost estimate for what the agency might do, arguing the cost might be lower because much of the work is already underway for other purposes.  The total request for this initiative in FY2014 is $105 million, but NASA categorizes only $78 million of that as “mission” funding.

The overall President’s budget request for the U.S. Government for FY2014 was officially released at 12:30 pm ET today.

Details of NASA’s FY2014 budget request will be posted on the agency’s website at 1:00 pm ET. 

NASA Administrator Bolden will be one of the participants in a press conference at 1:30 pm ET.  The press conference is led by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and will be webcast by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) on its website.   The other participants are the heads of NOAA, NIH and NSF, all of whom will join the President’s Science Adviser and Director of OSTP John Holdren.

A House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing on the threat to Earth posed by asteroids and meteors whose orbits bring them close to Earth, called Near Earth Objects (NEOs), is scheduled to begin at 2:00 pm.  One of the witnesses, Don Yeomans, is from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but it is not clear how much information he will provide about the Asteroid Retrieval Initiative in NASA’s budget request.   He is the manager of NASA’s ongoing effort to track and catalogue NEOs.  The hearing will be webcast on the committee’s website.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden will hold a media teleconference on the FY2014 budget request at 3:00 pm.  It will be broadcast on the agency’s news audio website.

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