NASA's budget is never secure, despite being relatively cheap (it has the smallest budget of all government agencies) and returning more inspiration per buck than any other piece of the government, I'd wager. Still, it does seem to shoulder a large share of the budgetary axe.
This year is worse than most. The last Congress left without finishing the fiscal year 2007 budget, so the new Congress had to pass what's called a "continuing resolution", a stop-gap measure to allow the government to run temporarily until the budget is finalized. To put it bluntly, these suck. When I was at Goddard Space Flight Center, even though I was a contractor and not a civil servant, when this happened we all feared we'd have to stop work and not get paid for a while. Continuing resolutions are not good for morale, even if they are better than shutting everything down until a budget is agreed upon.
But this year, it's even bleaker: Congress told agencies that they can keep going, but they have to use their FY 06 budget. That may not sound so bad, but what it translates to is that any project expecting more money in the FY 07 budget isn't going to get it. This leaves the administrations scrambling to reallocate funds to feed starving projects.
NASA falls under that category. According to Aviation Now, NASA faces a $500 million shortfall! NASA Administrator Mike Griffin will be forced to cut some funding to programs in order to keep others afloat.
Let's just say that NASA's record on budget cuts has not always been so hot for science (oh, OK, I'll say it more clearly, like I did here and here and here, but most especially, here, where we see how badly science was already doing in the 2007 budget before this current new crisis). So this is looking grim indeed. What really makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up is this line from the article:
"We will find what we believe are the lowest priority half-billion dollars in content, and we'll extract it, across the agency," [Griffin] says, stressing that does not mean programs at the core of the redirected U.S. space program as defined by President Bush almost three years ago...
"The ideal candidate is a fairly new, lower priority effort where not a lot of money has already been invested, and by stopping it now you can react and not have to spend future money that you know you're not going to get," he says.
It's not surprising that he will try to keep as much money as he can in the Exploration program, nor do I blame him: that's the up-and-coming thing, and cutting money there could really devastate it later. But unmanned science missions are already in really bad shape, and astrobiology, to pick a very sharp example, is facing extinction. There have been some bright moments: Dawn reinstated, SOFIA back on track... but then again there is NuSTAR.
While there may be more money coming in the future, it looks to me that NASA will have to make some extremely difficult decisions very soon.
A few days ago at the AAS meeting I sat at different exhibit booths extolling the great science done by various high-energy NASA missions. I also sat at a couple of booths for missions which still lie some time in the future; astronomical observatories where the technology needed is still a few years away. These missions have already felt the sharp edge of budget cuts in the past. I wonder how "low priority" they will be rated in the coming months? Maybe they'll survive this round... but somehow, from somewhere, NASA has to find $500 million. That's going to hurt somebody. I wouldn't want Griffin's job if I could keep that money for myself.
Hat tip to Space Politics for the article alert.