House Budget Cuts NASA Earth Science By More Than $250 Million


Updated 9:20 p.m. EDT.

WASHINGTON — A NASA spending bill that the House Appropriations Committee will consider May 20 cuts the agency’s Earth science program by more than $250 million and provides no funding for a gapfiller satellite included in the administration’s request, moves that drew criticism from both NASA and the White House.

The report accompanying the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) appropriations bill, released by the House Appropriations Committee May 19, provided new details about a spending bill that gives NASA $18.529 billion for fiscal year 2016. An appropriations subcommittee approved the bill May 14.

The report confirmed speculation that NASA’s Earth science division would suffer significant cuts to accommodate increases elsewhere in the agency, including planetary science. The bill provides Earth science with $1.683 billion for 2016, a reduction of $264 million from the administration’s request in February.

The bill provides no funding for the Thermal-Infrared Free-Flyer mission, which was part of the Sustainable Land Imaging initiative included in the 2016 budget request. The mission, intended to launch in 2019, would fly a thermal infrared instrument similar to one on Landsat 8 to ensure continuity in observations.

The House offered no explanation for the lack of funding for the mission in the report. The report does set aside $32.9 million for Landsat 9, another element of the initiative that is planned for launch in 2023. NASA did not break out funding for Landsat 9 in its budget request, instead asking for $78.9 million for the overall Sustainable Land Imaging program, which also includes technology development for missions beyond Landsat 9.

Planetary science, in contrast, receives an increase of $195 million over the administration’s request, to $1.557 billion. That includes $140 million for a mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, $110 million more than requested. The Mars Rover 2020 mission receives $32 million more than requested, to $250 million. The report states the additional funding for the 2020 mission is intended to “enable overall economies” by allowing the program to purchase hardware identical to that used on the Curiosity rover, upon which it is based.

The Europa mission would become the centerpiece of a new initiative the report directs NASA to create, called the Ocean Worlds Exploration Program. The goal of the program is to “discover extant life on another world” using a mix of missions to Europa and Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan.

The report also sets aside $19 million for operations of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and $13.7 million for the Mars rover Opportunity. The NASA budget proposal provided no funding for either mission, raising the possibility both could be terminated if the agency could not free up funding elsewhere for them. Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the CJS appropriations subcommittee, said in March he would seek to fund those missions.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden criticized the cuts in Earth science in a statement late May 19. “Yet, 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,” he said.

Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan also took issue with those elements of the bill in a May 19 letter to Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the full appropriations committee. “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,” he wrote as part of a discussion of issues with the broader appropriations bill.

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. However, the report calls for an increase of $35.8 million for the exoplanet exploration program within that division to support work on an instrument on the proposed Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope mission that would allow it to directly observe extrasolar planets.

The report offered mixed messages about NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which has been subject to Congressional criticism since the agency announced it more than two years ago. Although still skeptical of the mission’s overall utility, the committee does support some key technologies being developed for it.

“While questions remain about the overarching mission of the asteroid redirect mission,” the report states, “the Committee understands that it has been useful to the extent that it has motivated NASA to develop new rocket propulsion technology to be used in interstellar travel and methods to deflect near earth objects that threaten the Earth.” Culberson has previously cited the potential for solar electric propulsion, one of ARM’s key technologies, to be used for interstellar applications.

The report does not explicitly identify funding for ARM beyond $50 million in NASA’s science account to be used for near Earth object searches. However, the report does not explicitly bar funding of ARM-related programs, and only requires “biennial updates” on the status of the program, starting in the second quarter of fiscal year 2016.