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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

NASA Funding Update

By Phil Plait

At the end of April, the House subcommittee in charge of NASA funding released a draft budget for the space agency. This is nowhere near a final budget, but it’s interesting to look over. It has many substantial increases over the puzzling White House proposal, which (once again) has big cuts for planetary exploration.

I like some of what I see in the House draft budget, and some I don’t. Good stuff: more cash for science, more for education. Although there isn’t an explicit line for planetary exploration in the draft bill, Casey Dreier at the Planetary Society says there’s reason for hope (I suggest reading his post; I agree with pretty much everything he wrote). There is more money for a mission to Europa than the president requested, which is also very cool.

Not so good stuff: more for the Space Launch System, a proposed heavy lift rocket to replace the shuttles. I’m not a big fan of this project as things stand right now. A rocket like that is incredibly expensive and will consume a large portion of NASA’s time and energy, without any firm goal specified. There have been ideas put forward, but they aren’t firmed up. For example, NASA has said they want to go to an asteroid and retrieve it, but I’m not a huge fan of that project either (I am in principle, but in reality it will be extremely difficult, expensive, and the payoff isn’t really clear).

There are also some ideas about going back to the Moon, but I have yet to be convinced that these plans are viable, and the government is committed to it. If NASA, Congress, and the president were to say, “We’re going back to the Moon, this time to stay, and here is how we’ll do it” in a clear, loud, and unified voice—which dangit, they should just do already—then a rocket like that might be worth building. But wanting to build the rocket without a clear and detailed plan first doesn’t make sense to me. I’m more than willing to be convinced, but I haven’t seen anything to do so yet.

There’s a lot still unanswered in this draft budget, like how much will go toward Earth observations for climate change, which the president cut in his version and which Congress has some, ah, problems with. But this budget is just the first of many steps in getting NASA funded. The House has to approve it,* the Senate has to get theirs put together, the two sides of Congress have to alloy the two budgets into one, and then there will be negotiations with the White House.

Sausages and laws.

As usual it’ll be interesting and frustrating to follow along with this. Let’s hope everyone involved does the right thing. You can help: As Dreier also points out, you can write your Congresscritter. And remember, a physical U.S. postal mail letter counts a lot more than an email. But everything helps.

*In the draft bill, there’s a line that says, “Near-Earth objects pose a serious and credible threat to humankind, as many scientists believe that a major asteroid or comet was responsible for the mass extinction of the majority of the Earth’s species, including the dinosaurs, approximately 65,000,000 years ago.” I wonder if Paul Broun will let that line slide?

Correction, May 6, 2014: The post originally misspelled the last name of Casey Dreier.

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