Digital Geography

14. January 2014

NASAs 2014 Budget: the launching of a crisis?

A $3B a year white elephant?

Following sequestration and bitter budget wars in Washington NASA find itself in a difficult position. NASA has proposed a budget of $17.715 billion, down from $17.893B last year. The House passed a bipartisan bill this last week: slight increases in Earth Science are proposed as are cuts in Planetary Science. Exploration receives more than $300 million more in FY2014 than FY2012; Space Operations slightly less in FY2014 than FY2012. The International Space Station continues to deplete budgets by more than $3B a year (rising to $3.5B by 2018). Planetary Scientists are not happy with the budget. Really not happy (though it should be noted that the cuts aren’t as deep as first feared). Others are wading in challenging priorities and spending.

Earth Science highlights for 2014 include the launch of Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-1 having died) and the Global Precipitation Measurement Mission (with Japan). NASA also assigns resources to the formulation and development of ICESat-2, OCO-3 and the follow-on to Landsat-8/LDCM. SMAP will be developed (see below) as will an aerosol experiment SAGES III.

It won’t be plain sailing. Funding for the sensor development for the Joint Polar Satellite System (weather satellites) is not approved:

“Prior to expending any funds on the development of the JPSS climate sensors, however, NASA shall submit to the Committees a development plan for each sensor, including a notional budget and schedule profile”.(page 114 here).

It goes on to ask for an analysis of ” the effect this funding will have on the achievement of existing NASA priorities as recommended in the 2007 Earth Science decadal survey”.

The decadal survey recommended instruments such as a SMAP a soil moisture mission (planned for a October 2014 launch)and CLARREO a climate-science mission, cancelled two years ago along with DESDynl a radar system proposed by the decadal survey. Instruments intended for operation in 2013-16 included:  HyspIRI a hyperspectral imager nowhere near ready to launch, ASCENDS a CO2 mapping mission currently in the early stages of development and SWOT an ocean topography and hydrology mission tentatively scheduled for a 2019 or 2020 launch (i.e. at least 6 years later than intended).

One conclusion then is that despite securing funding for FY 2014 Earth Science has little to cheer about. Congressional oversight might become intrusive or obstructive and  the money has already been assigned. Equally worrying is the effect on morale at NASA. Current funding is not sustainable as there is no wiggle room: a major cut may be on the cards to help pay for extending ISS operations, and to pay for cost overruns, should they occur on a major mission such as the James Webb Space Telescope. The JWST costs are capped at $8B by Congress but it remains to be seen if that would be negotiable were the mission jeopardized by an overspend of a couple of hundred million. A further risk is a demoralizing internal fight over resources pitting different branches against each other. This is a fear whispered by insiders. A big cut could lead to nasty recriminations and a further deterioration in the atmosphere within NASA and between scientists and Congress (some of whom are seen as anti-science).

So despite a relatively NASA friendly budget outcome 2014 might not be NASA’s year.