NASA Budget Request Would Boost Science Funding

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WASHINGTON — Earth observation appears to be the big winner in U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2011 budget request for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, which also manages the agency’s robotic planetary probes and space-based astronomy telescopes.

Obama is asking Congress for $5 billion for NASA science programs in 2011, an 11 percent increase over this year’s budget of $4.49 billion. The biggest chunk of the $512 million increase would be used to boost the Earth Science Division’s budget to $1.8 billion, a 27 percent increase over 2010.

The Planetary Science Division would get the second biggest increase, 11 percent, to $1.485 billion. NASA’s heliophysics budget would grow by around 2 percent to $641.9 million, while the agency’s astrophysics budget — which funds the Hubble Space Telescope and other space-based observatories — would see its $1.1 billion budget shrink by about $28 million.

Ed Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said the budget request includes an additional $2 billion for the Science Mission Directorate over the next five years, compared to Obama’s previous budget projections.

“This is a great budget. It’s a major increase to the science budget,” Weiler told reporters during a Feb. 2 teleconference. “It’s an especially major increase to the Earth science budget. Earth science has suffered over the past decade. We went through the ‘90s and early 2000s with a budget that was declining just as we were understanding just how important Earth science is to understanding what’s going on in our climate.”

According to NASA budget charts, the Obama administration intends to devote a little over $8 billion to Earth science between 2011 and 2014, a $1.8 billion increase over previous plans.

NASA’s planetary science budget, in contrast, actually fared slightly better in the five-year budget Obama sent to Congress last year. That budget included about $60 million more for planetary science between 2011 and 2014 than the division stands to receive in the new budget.

Weiler said the additional Earth science money, meanwhile, would be used to accelerate development of new climate monitoring satellites and expand a recently initiated Venture-class program of modestly priced, scientist-led missions.

He also said the 2011 budget proposal includes money for building a duplicate of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory satellite that was destroyed in a February 2009 launch failure.

Weiler was not prepared, however, to answer questions about what specific new Earth science missions NASA would tackle, and when, as a result of the proposed windfall.

“All excellent questions and we are working the details of that with our partners in the federal government, mainly the [White House] Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, OSTP,” Weiler said. “We expect to be able to get much more specific literally within weeks not months.”

NASA typically releases a several hundred-page document on the day its annual budget request is unveiled detailing its spending plans. Last year’s document, for example, exceeded 600 pages. This year, the agency released a 22-page Power Point presentation with no supporting documents. According to current and former NASA officials, senior managers like Weiler were not briefed on the request until the Friday before its release.

Weiler did not say when he learned what was in his directorate’s budget request, but he made clear during the teleconference that it remains something of a work in progress.

“When you get $2 billion like this spread over five years, it’s a unique opportunity … you want to be sure you got it right,” he said. “You want to be sure what you are laying out is affordable and executable. The worse thing we could do is make a whole bunch of promises based on hope as opposed to reality. We want to get realistic budgets for these and really lay out a group of missions that make sense.”

Moving on to planetary science, Weiler said Obama’s budget plan includes additional money for the identification and cataloging of asteroids and comets that could threaten Earth; restarts production of plutonium-238 with the U.S. Department of Energy for future deep space missions; completes preparations for a late 2011 launch of the over-budget and behind-schedule Mars Science Laboratory; and moves the Mars 2016 mission — to be done jointly with the Europeans — into formulation.

While NASA’s Astrophysics, Heliophysics and Planetary Science Divisions were denied significant budget increases in the five-year plan, Weiler said Obama’s budget keeps both activities on a stable footing at least through the middle of the decade.

“They didn’t get really huge increases but they have stable budgets. That’s very important,” he said. “With the economy in the shape it’s in, and the deficits out there, having a stable budget for a discretionary agency is not a bad thing.”