Wednesday, May 20, 2015

NASA to Focus on Studying Other Planets, Not Earth, According to House Bill

Credit: NASA

The House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday approved the fiscal year 2016 Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) Appropriations bill on a voice vote. The bill that will shape NASA’s future activities envisions a big boost for the planetary science and cuts the agency’s funds for Commercial Crew program and Earth science. NASA administrator Charles Bolden has criticized the cuts. “It would upend the investments we need to execute contracts with Boeing and SpaceX to return the launches of American astronauts to American soil and to do it by 2017,” he said in a statement. “The House proposal would seriously reduce our Earth science program and threaten to set back generations worth of progress in better understanding our changing climate, and our ability to prepare for and respond to earthquakes, droughts, and storm events,” Bolden added.

Planetary science receives an increase of $195 million over the administration’s request, to $1.557 billion. It would give a huge boost to an uncrewed mission to Jupiter's moon Europa, and directs it to launch few years earlier, in 2022. The Mars Rover 2020 mission receives $32 million more than requested. The bill also gives more funding for the Opportunity rover on Mars, and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Meanwhile, the bill provides a $244 million cut to NASA's Commercial Crew Program. The agency has stated several times that providing anything less than their requested amount would delay the program and require them to renegotiate their contracts with SpaceX and Boeing.

“It would force us to continue our sole reliance on Russia,” Bolden remarked. “In other words, it would guarantee we will continue to send millions of dollars a year to Moscow instead of investing that money in United States, creating jobs and once again launching Americans from U.S. soil.”

Shaun Donovan, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director has also expressed his worries in a letter to the House Appropriations Committee.

“The Subcommittee bill cuts will delay the program and force continued reliance on and payment for Russian capabilities for transporting U.S. astronauts,” Donovan said. “While directing an impractical level of funding toward the Jupiter Europa mission, the bill cuts important NASA Science programs by more than $200 million compared to the President's Budget, jeopardizing Earth Science missions that are helping us understand how our climate is changing and respond to earthquakes, droughts, and severe weather events.”

Indeed, Earth science gets a significant cut - $90 million less than what it received in 2015, and $269 million below what the President requested. It eliminates the Thermal-Infrared Free-Flyer — an imaging spacecraft that NASA hopes to launch in 2019, when Landsat 7 satellite will run out of fuel. It doesn't specify where the other cuts would come from, but this would likely impact the transfer of several NOAA instruments to NASA and delay some future missions in development.

The Space Launch System will get the largest increase. The President requested $1.356 billion for 2016, and the House bill would provide $1.850 billion—nearly $500 million more. Funding for the Orion spacecraft is the same as in Obama's request.

The House bill fully funds the James Webb Space Telescope at the requested amount of $620 million, and increases the request for NASA’s astrophysics division by more than $25 million to $735.6 million. $36 million will be applied to develop direct exoplanet detection capabilities on the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST).

There’s also a boost in funding for production of plutonium-238, necessary to fuel deep-space missions to the outer solar system. Technology funding gets an increase of $30 million.

Overall, NASA does extremely well in this bill. It gets $18.5 billion. This is $519 million above last year and exactly what the President requested for 2016.

The Senate still has to pass its own version of the bill.

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