Editorial | Bill Would Not Restore Balance to NASA

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Gains for SLS and Orion Would Not Justify Pain Inflicted on Earth Science

The misguided NASA authorization bill recently approved by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee is a good illustration of why the space agency, and its Earth Science program in particular, will miss U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) when she retires at the end of her term next year.

During some two decades as either chairwoman or ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, Ms. Mikulski has been a guardian angel for the Earth Science program, which is executed primarily by the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in her home state.

The new authorization bill once again puts Earth Science, controversial in Republican circles because of its role in helping scientists understand climate change, in the crosshairs.

Formally known as the NASA Authorization Act for 2016 and 2017, the bill comes in two flavors: one whose top-line funding figure adheres to President Barack Obama’s $18.53 billion request for the agency next year, and one that authorizes about 3 percent less to comply with existing — but often skirted — deficit reduction law.

Not surprisingly given the stated priorities of the lawmakers who run the committee, Earth Science takes an 18 percent hit relative to 2015 in the first scenario, characterized by the panel’s leadership as “aspirational,” and a debilitating 32 percent cut in the constrained scenario. NASA’s Space Launch System, Orion deep-space capsule and Planetary Science programs, meanwhile, would see increases under both scenarios.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) retires at the end of her term next year. Credit: Sen. Mikulski’s office

The committee’s Republican majority said the bill “restores much needed balance” to the nation’s civil space program.

But that balance already is heavily tipped in favor of SLS and Orion, which in 2015 received a combined $3.25 billion, compared with $1.77 billion for Earth Science. With the addition of SLS and Orion, NASA’s human spaceflight budget, which also includes International Space Station operations, is more than $7.3 billion, or 40 percent of the agency’s overall 2015 spending.

President Obama’s 2016 request doesn’t really change the equation. SLS/Orion funding would drop to $2.8 billion, but the human spaceflight program would continue to account for roughly 40 percent of the agency’s total proposed budget. Earth Science spending, meanwhile, would increase to $1.95 billion, or about 10 percent of the total — roughly the same as this year.

The bill does seek to address some troublesome aspects of the president’s $1.36 billion budget request for Planetary Science. That figure, representing a 5 percent decrease compared with the current-year budget, does not support continued operations of the Mars Opportunity Rover or Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, two missions that a senior review team has judged to be worthy of continuing. Although the bill is not prescriptive in how NASA should spend its proposed 4 percent Planetary Science increase, to $1.5 billion, at least one lawmaker has pledged to secure the funds necessary to keep the missions in question operating.

Still, Planetary Science would receive less than 30 percent of the funding that the bill proposes to divert from Earth Science in its aspirational scenario, and less than 20 percent under the constrained scenario. The lion’s share of the diverted funding, along with $129 million to $225 million from the request for Space Technology, would go to SLS and Orion.

SLS and Orion. Credit: NASA artist's concept
SLS and Orion. Credit: NASA artist’s concept

To be fair, a substitute bill offered by committee Democrats, which included significant increases for all of the activities in question, was unrealistic — it authorized an increase of more than $1.5 billion for NASA overall. That measure was rejected.

But the bill now headed to the House floor, which passed the committee on a straight party-line vote, is hardly any better. It would pad the accounts of a pair of already massive programs for which there are no approved — or realistically affordable — missions beyond two test flights now scheduled for 2017 and 2021. The benefits of these increases to SLS and Orion pale in comparison with the pain that would be incurred by the primary bill payer, Earth Science.

Some Washington observers give the House bill little chance of becoming law, even though it appears to conform to priorities outlined by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who chairs the subcommittee that will be drafting companion legislation in the Senate. Indeed, after the politically charged debate over the bill in the House committee, it seems unlikely that a comparable Senate bill could muster the filibuster-proof majority it likely would need to clear the upper chamber.

One must wonder, however, whether the absence of Ms. Mikulski, who has been credited with thwarting previous attempts to gut NASA’s Earth Science program, would change the equation. With her in office, the outcome of the latest partisan battle over Earth Science seems entirely predictable. Assuming the next election brings no major changes to the political makeup of Congress, things are bound to get far more interesting once she departs.