Earlier this year, inspired at least in part by comments from astronomer and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson upon the release of his latest collection of essays, some space activists started a petition on the White House website asking for NASA’s budget to be, at a minimum, doubled. “Tomorrow is gone without NASA,” the petition pleaded. “Please at least double NASA’s annual budget, and continue to support the most inspirational program in the country.” Backed by a group called Penny4NASA, a reference to their desire to see NASA’s funding increased to one percent of the overall federal budget, the petition got the 25,000 signatures needed within 30 days to merit an official response from the White House.
Yesterday, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) published the administration’s official response to the petition. The response, though, doesn’t directly address the petitioners’ request: that NASA’s budget be doubled. “NASA and space are so important to our future that we do need to be doubling and tripling what we can accomplish in this domain,” reads the OSTP response, citing, among other things, increases in the number of vehicles that can access ISS, the 100-times-more-powerful James Webb Space Telescope, and the Mars rover Curiosity, with 10 times the mass of scientific instruments than the rover Opportunity.
But what about budgets? Here, OSTP warns of budget cuts proposed by the Republican-led House, whose budget plan “if spread evenly, would significantly cut NASA’s budget, forcing the deepest cuts to the space program since just after we landed on the Moon.” By comparison, “the Administration has proposed a NASA budget for FY 2013 that spares the agency from such cuts and yet will deliver more than ever from this essential driver of American innovation.” Not exactly the message those who signed the petition were necessarily looking for.
Of course, in today’s fiscal environment, with the scythe of sequestration looming over every discussion of the 2013 budget, doubling NASA’s budget—or even far more modest increases—isn’t very realistic. (There is also the issue of what fraction of the federal budget should be devoted to NASA, and whether even that metric makes sense, but that’s a discussion for another post.) If space advocates want to increase NASA’s budget, they’ll need to find another approach than a petition, and they’ll need far more than 25,000 people to support that effort.