Reports: Planetary Science to Take Hit in New Budget

Reports: Planetary Science to Take Hit in New Budget

Rumors ahead of the release of the FY2013 budget request paint a gloomy picture for NASA’s planetary science program.   The Washington Post reports today that the budget request will drop from $1.5 billion to $1.2 billion for FY2013 with additional cuts in later years.

NASA planetary science division director Jim Green has hinted as recent meetings of the NASA Advisory Council’s (NAC’s) planetary science subcommittee that such cuts were more than likely.  Without getting into specifics — which is officially prohibited prior to the President releasing the budget request — Green alerted the planetary science community that it had to make its case as to why planetary science is important to the nation.

The story in the Washington Post this morning suggests that the community got the message.  It quotes Jim Bell, a member of that subcommittee and President of The Planetary Society, calling the proposed cuts “devastating ” to U.S. robotic Mars exploration plans.  Scott Hubbard, a member of the parent NAC Science Committee and who was NASA’s first Mars program director and later Director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, went further:  “It’s a scientific tragedy and a national embarrassment.” 

Such cuts would impact not only the U.S. program, but Europe’s.   In 2009, NASA and the European Space Agency signed what was thought to be a revolutionary international cooperation agreement where the two agencies essentially merged their Mars exploration programs.   Instead of cooperating on a mission-by-mission basis, now the programs themselves would be merged to get the most payoff from investments on both sides of the Atlantic.   

Early indications last fall that the budget outlook was dimming led NASA to pull back from committing to the next two merged missions — in 2016 and 2018 — that themselves were just the first in a string of missions with the ultimate goal of returning samples from Mars.   ESA’s science director Alvaro Gimenez told the BBC earlier this week that it had been told NASA participation in the missions had become “very unlikely.”   ESA is also talking to Russia about cooperating on those missions.  Russia’s Mars probe, Phobos-Grunt, was lost last fall because of computer design and programming errors. 

The Washington Post quotes Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), a member of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, as condemning the proposed cut and asserting it will not be approved by Congress.    Those comments, however, illustrate the painful choices that will have to be made not only in FY2013 but for the rest of the decade to reduce the deficit, especially if the reduction must be accomplished only through spending cuts, as the Republicans insist, and not with revenue increases.    At the moment, influential Senators and the Obama Administration apparently have agreed that the top science priority for NASA is completing the over-budget James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), not planetary exploration.   The planetary program is just one of five divisions within NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.  JWST was separated from the rest of NASA’s astrophysics division last year to improve management of the program, so planetary science must compete for resources with JWST, the rest of astrophysics, heliophysics, and earth science.   The planetary program itself must choose priorities among Mars and the rest of the solar system.  

Choosing science priorities is only the first step.   Prioritizing NASA’s science programs versus human exploration and aeronautics is another level of decision-making, then NASA versus other agencies in the same appropriations bill (including the Department of Commerce and its weather satellite activities, the Department of Justice, and the National Science Foundation), and then all of those against the rest of domestic discretionary spending.

The FY2013 budget request will be released on Monday.   NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden will participate in a press conference at NASA Headquarters at 2:00 pm that day, which will be webcast on NASA TV.



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