Editorial: A Bad News Budget Request

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There is little to cheer about in the 2013 NASA budget request submitted to Congress Feb. 13. Expectations had been low since the middle of last year given the intense pressure on U.S. federal spending; rumors that NASA’s planetary program would be hard hit had been circulating for months. Viewing the actual numbers — the proposed $17.7 billion budget would be NASA’s smallest since 2008 — and assessing their impact was nonetheless a sobering exercise.

Most dramatic, of course, is the 21 percent cut to the agency’s planetary science program. In addition to forcing NASA to bow out of the European-led ExoMars program — NASA had agreed to launch an orbiter in 2016 and collaborate on a rover for launch in 2018 — the spending plan offers little hope for a major new development program for the next five years. That raises questions about the future of the unique capabilities resident at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the standard-bearer in exploring other worlds. JPL, whose $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory launched in November, has no firm planetary projects on its plate beyond a supporting role on the Maven mission to Mars, slated to launch in 2013, and the possible lead on a Discovery-class mission that would launch around 2016.

The ExoMars withdrawal hurts NASA’s reputation as a partner on international projects to an extent that won’t be fully understood for perhaps several years. In fairness, ExoMars had its financial troubles before NASA came on board, but that doesn’t change the fact that other countries seeking partners on science missions now will be wary of putting themselves in a position of dependence on the United States. The likely result is fewer opportunities to pull together the kinds of large-scale missions that no nation would undertake on its own.

Unfortunately, planetary science was caught between a shrinking NASA topline and rising costs on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), whose cancellation, which was advocated in some circles, would have been devastating for astronomy. Throw in a heavy-lift rocket and deep-space capsule that U.S. President Barack Obama did not want, and which have no firm mission, and the result is a surefire recipe for widespread unhappiness.

Administration critics, predictably, began blazing their guns as soon as the budget was released, and in some cases even before. But the complaints tend to reflect parochial interests and fail to acknowledge the full set of circumstances facing the agency.

The most glaring example is the heavy-lift Space Launch System and Orion deep-space capsule, which were mandated by Congress and stand to receive nearly $3 billion combined next year. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) took the White House to task for robbing this effort to help fund work on commercial astronaut taxi services for the international space station. At the same time, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who supports the commercial crew initiative, blasted the budget’s inclusion of $1.9 billion for what he described as a “monster rocket” based on 40-year-old technology that he said won’t be ready to launch astronauts to an asteroid until 2028 and after an expenditure of some $130 billion.

Similarly, some of those who decried the proposed cuts to planetary science also urged NASA and Congress to spare JWST, which will require $627.6 million — a 21 percent increase over 2012 — just to have a chance of staying on track for a 2018 launch and within its latest $8.8 billion price tag. Where was that money going to come from?

Positive reviews of the budget, aside from NASA’s obligatory yet credibility-stretching attempts at happy spin, were limited largely to the $830 million request for the Commercial Crew Program, typically by — surprise — longtime commercial crew advocates. Unfortunately, that might be one of the more vulnerable large accounts in the budget — Congress halved NASA’s commercial crew request for 2012, and a similar action on next year’s budget could send NASA back to square one in its bid to restore independent U.S. access to the station.

But for all the challenges it faces, the White House has made questionable choices in the NASA request, a prime example being the Space Technology account, which would receive $700 million, a 22 percent increase. This apparently stems from a persistent administration belief, despite ample evidence to the contrary, that spreading money around various technology concepts will yield a breakthrough that facilitates deep-space exploration. In reality, generic technology accounts are notoriously vulnerable in the give and take of congressional budget deliberations. In any case the surest path to technological innovation is a challenging mission with a solid funding foundation.

More generally, this budget also raises questions about where space resides on the president’s list of science priorities. As it moves to rein in NASA’s robotic exploration program, the White House is asking to raise the National Science Foundation’s budget by 5 percent, to $7.4 billion. This is not to judge the relative merits of different areas of scientific research. But it seems broadly counterproductive to put the brakes on an endeavor that ranks among the nation’s most successful and inspiring and is a proven engine of technological progress.

It would be easy to say that the best thing that can happen to this budget is for Congress to reject it entirely, a distinct possibility in an election year. But that outcome, which would leave NASA funded at 2012 levels, poses its own pitfalls, notably a potentially fatal blow to a commercial spaceflight effort that offers the only near-term chance of restoring independent U.S. crew access to the space station.

The president and Congress share responsibility for what’s wrong with the 2013 NASA budget request, which is in part reflective of their chronic inability to agree on the agency’s future. The longer they remain at an impasse, bent on protecting their own pet initiatives, the longer it will take to repair the damage being done to the U.S. space agency.