House Republicans Urge Earth Science Cuts, Including OCO-2

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WASHINGTON — NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)-2 mission was singled out for cancellation in a list of budget cuts a group of House Republicans sent a bipartisan congressional supercommittee racing to produce a plan for trimming more than $1 trillion from the U.S. deficit over the next decade.

The recommendation to terminate OCO-2 was included in an Oct. 14 letter from the Republican members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee outlining $1.5 billion in cuts to federal science spending in 2012. Some $177 million of the proposed savings would come from NASA’s Earth science budget.

Eleven Republicans, including the committee’s chairman, Ralph Hall of Texas, signed the letter addressed to Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the co-chairs of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.

The so-called supercommittee has until Nov. 23 to produce a plan for reducing the federal deficit by at least $1.5 trillion during the next 10 years. Congressional committees were invited to submit deficit reduction recommendations to the supercommittee by Oct. 14.

Canceling OCO-2 would save about $91 million in 2012, Hall and his fellow Republicans said in their letter. An additional $86.4 million in 2012 savings could be achieved by cutting $12.4 million from NASA’s Venture-class program of low-cost Earth science missions and $74 million from the “Other Missions and Data Analysis” account within the agency’s Earth Systemic Missions program.

OCO-2 was scheduled to launch in 2013, but NASA has warned that the schedule could slip and costs could rise.

U.S. President Barack Obama has made climate science a priority for NASA. The agency’s Earth Science division, which manages climate research projects, has been the best funded of the four major NASA science divisions since Obama took office in 2009. The division also received economic stimulus funding in 2009 to fast-track a number of climate science missions.

OCO-2 has so far survived the 2012 appropriations process; a pair of spending bills that cleared the House and Senate Appropriations Committees this summer included funding for the mission. However, appropriators in the Republican-controlled House were less generous toward NASA’s Earth science programs than their counterparts in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee in June proposed cutting the 2012 request for Earth science to $1.69 billion, almost $100 million below the president’s request. NASA’s appropriators in the Senate, meanwhile, proposed about $1.77 billion for Earth Sciences — only about $32 million below the request. Earth science got $1.8 billion in 2011.

OCO-2 is being built by Orbital Sciences Corp., the Dulles, Va.-based company that built original OCO craft, which was destroyed when the payload shroud on its Taurus XL rocket failed to separate.

Orbital Sciences had been picked to launch OCO-2, but NASA stopped payment on Orbital’s $70 million launch contract after losing a second climate-monitoring satellite, Glory, to a similar Taurus XL launch mishap in March.

NASA said in the 2011 operating plan it sent Congress earlier this year that OCO-2’s 2013 launch date would slip and the mission’s cost would rise as a result of the search for a new launch vehicle.

Among the rockets in the running to launch OCO-2 is the Delta 2. The venerable workhorse, built and operated by United Launch Alliance of Denver, was added back to NASA’s stable of eligible launchers in September.

United Launch Alliance has five Delta 2s in inventory, not including a rocket undergoing preparations at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, for an Oct. 27 launch of a NASA environmental satellite called the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project.