It’s time for more federal appropriations fun! Earlier this week the House and Senate released their versions of the 2013 NSF appropriations bills. Now they have done the same for NASA.
The House has recommended that NASA be funded $17.6 billion (a decrease of 1.3% from 2012), while the Senate has recommended $19.4 billion. According to a statement from the Senate Appropriations Committee, “The large increase results from a reorganization of operational weather satellite procurement from NOAA into NASA. Without the funds for weather satellite procurement, this level represents a $41.5 million cut from the fiscal year 2012 enacted level.”
Here’s the funding breakdown (approximately) for the various NASA directorates:
Science: $5.0 billion
Space Operations: $4.0 billion
Exploration: $3.8 billion
Cross-Agency Support: $2.9 billion
Space Technology: $0.6 billion
Aeronautics: $0.6 billion
Education: $0.1 billion
There are a number of recommendations in the report, but I will focus primarily on the two projects most relevant to astrophysicists – the Wide Field Infra-Red Survey Telescope (WFIRST) and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).
WFIRST is a proposed wide-field space-based observatory capable of mapping the distribution of 2 billion galaxies. It will be able to detect thousands of supernovae which can be used to measure the expansion rate of the universe and study dark energy. WFIRST will study the formation and growth of black holes as well as how galaxies evolve over cosmic time. More locally, WFIRST will observe star clusters and exoplanets within our own Milky Way.
The WFIRST mission was identified as the astronomy community’s #1 space-based priority for the next 10 years in the National Academy of Sciences’ Astro2010 decadal survey. Yet over a year ago, astronomers feared that in a challenging budget environment there was some risk that WFIRST would be ignored. If this happened, the only way for American scientists to get in on the game would be to piggyback off of a European Space Agency (ESA) satellite, Euclid. There was some question of how the astronomy community should proceed. Should they hedge their bets and throw their support behind Euclid? If they did, would this disincentivize funding for the American-led WFIRST? On this issue, the House Appropriations Committee report said the following:
“The Committee believes that NASA’s proposal to spend up to $9,000,000 in fiscal year 2013 on a hardware contribution to the European Space Agency’s Euclid mission is in conflict with the NRC’s recommendation to make such an investment only in the context of a strong commitment to NASA’s Wide Field Infra-Red Survey Telescope, for which no funding is requested.”
In the end, the Senate Appropriations Committee invoked both the NAS recommendation and the awarding of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics to JHU’s Adam Riess (for his discovery of dark energy) to justify their support of WFIRST. In what will amount to the first direct appropriation for the astronomy’s community’s #1 space-based priority for the next 10 years, the Committee has granted $10 million to begin planning and development.
Despite high-profile threats to defund it last summer, the Senate also “strongly supports completion of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)“. Members of Congress were concerned that with scheduling delays and cost overruns, the price tag of JWST was approaching $9 dollars, far more than was originally envisioned. The Committee asked for an independent assessment, the Casani Report, of the telescope which found that “NASA had never requested adequate resources to fund its development.” Quoting directly from the Senate Committee report:
“As with many other projects, budget optimism led to massive ongoing cost overruns because the project did not have adequate reserves or contingency to address the kinds of technical problems that are expected to arise in a complex, cutting edge project. Without funds, the only other way to deal with problems is to allow the schedule to slip. That slip, in turn, makes the project cost even more, when accounting for the technical costs as well as the cost of maintaining a pool of highly skilled technical labor through the completion of the project.
“In response to the Casani report, NASA has submitted a new baseline for JWST with an overall life-cycle cost of $8,700,000,000. NASA has assured the Committee that this new baseline includes adequate reserves to achieve a 2018 launch without further cost overruns. The Committee intends to hold NASA and its contractors to that commitment, and the bill caps the overall development cost for JWST at $8,000,000,000. The Committee expects to be kept fully informed on issues relating to program and risk management, achievement of cost and schedule goals, and program technical status.
In addition to WFIRST and JWST, the committee also provided the full requirement of $98 million for continued operation of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Discoveries can occur quickly in astrophysics, and it was important to the community that funds be left available through the Explorer Program for stand-alone missions of opportunity. These missions are generally mid-sized and deployable on shorter timescales, like the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP).
Other science priorities laid out in the appropriations reports are:
- the Earth Science Decadal Survey Missions (e.g. satellite observatories for soil, moisture, ice)
- IceBridge (to continue making high-resolution measurements of polar sea ice and glaciers during the gap between IceSat-1 and IceSat-2)
- carbon monitoring
- cooperation between NASA and NOAA
- SERVIR (a program that links satellites, sensors and models to forecast and improve responses to natural disasters)
- producing fuel for future space missions
- robotic exploration of Mars
- competitive planetary programs (e.g. flexible, fast money for research grants)
- earth science and heliophysics (including the NASHeliophysics Decadal Report’s top recommendation, the Solar Probe Plus mission)
- planetary science (which the Committee was concerned was endangered by cuts) and
- production of Plutonium-238 (an essential source of power for deep space missions)