Sunday, July 14, 2013

NASA Budget Update – Party Like It’s 1986

Long time readers of this blog know that in the past, I frequently wrote to give updates on the progress of NASA’s budget as it moved through Congress to final approval.  Before this year, no one else was providing this kind of coverage focused on the planetary program.  Now Casey Drier at the Planetary Society regularly posts updates, and I recommend that you add the Society’s blogs to your regular reading.  This will free up more time for me to write longer stories about potential and planned missions such as the one I did recently on Uranus.  (When I started this blog, I was getting my PhD, and had one dissertation-quality research project.  Now I’m doing three to four.)  I will still write in-depth analyses of NASA’s budget (and other space agencies when I can find detailed information), but will wait for major milestones.

This year, as you’ll recall, the President proposed to continue a much reduced (~$1.2B) budget for planetary exploration in Fiscal Year 2014 compared to budgets of ~$1.5B just a few years before.  The good news is that budget committees in both the House of Representatives and the Senate appear to want to substantially raise the FY14 budget compared to the proposal.  The House has recommended raising the budget back to approximately $1.5B.  It does so, in large part by substantially cutting the budget for NASA’s Earth Science program.  The cuts to the Earth Science program would be, in my opinion, as devastating for that program as the cuts to the planetary program have been at a time when human activities are dramatically changing our planet.  I believe those cuts would be ill-advised.  (Full disclosure: Part of my research funding has come from NASA’s Earth Science program and I use data from that program in my research.)

The proposed House budget would also reduce NASA’s overall budget to $16.6B, a figure that was last seen in 1986.  (Casey has a nice graphic in his post.)  If you go to one of the inflation calculators available on the web, you’ll find out that there’s been 112% inflation since 1986.  A simple consumer inflation index, however, doesn’t fully capture the change in costs for NASA.  The march of technology will have reduced the costs of many items and activities since 1986, but other costs such as maintaining buildings and making payroll probably will have increased close at a rate close to the consumer price index.  Regardless of how this proposed budget compares to 1986, it would be another in a series of cuts to NASA over the last several years.

This year the two houses of Congress (each controlled by a different political party) seem further apart than ever in their views of what the Federal budget should be.  I expect many twists and turns, which you can follow on Casey’s blog.  When major events occur, I will do my traditional in-depth analyses.