NASA’s operating plan for fiscal year 2013 will reportedly reverse the increases awarded to the agency’s planetary science program by Congress, according to a report. The Planetary Exploration Newsletter (PEN) reported Wednesday that the operating plan, which details any tweaks NASA plans to make to the final FY13 appropriations passed in March, will return planetary science to the approximately $1.2 billion in the original FY13 budget request. Congress has included $1.415 billion for planetary science (before an across-the-board rescission and sequestration) in its budget, but the operating plan would fund the program at $1.196 billion (post-rescission and sequestration, it appears), compared to an original request of $1.192 billion.
Moreover, some programs within planetary will feel sharper cuts, as the appropriations bill earmarked $75 million of planetary funding to study a Europa mission. NASA’s Discovery program would get a 33% cut over what Congress approved, while Mars exploration would be cut by 20% from the request. The numbers in the PEN report are based on drafts of the operating plan they obtained; the final version of the operating plan was due to Congress on May 10 but, as of earlier this week, had not been submitted (but was in final preparations, according to sources.)
The magnitude and timing (with just over four months remaining in the fiscal year) of the cuts worries many in the planetary community. “The next Discovery call will certainly be delayed” because of the cuts, wrote Mark Sykes of the Planetary Science Institute in the newsletter. “The impact to research programs will be severe – further reduced selection rates can be anticipated.” He called on the planetary community to contact key members of Congress and ask them to reject the operating plan if it is submitted with those cuts.
The news of the potential planetary cuts coincides with a visit by The Planetary Society to Capitol Hill earlier this week. Officials with the advocacy organization paid visits to members’ offices and also held a luncheon Tuesday talking about the achievements NASA’s planetary program has made, but also their concerns that its future is in peril. “We can do a nice, balanced mix of small Discovery-class missions, medium-scale New Frontiers missions, and a flagship or two for that billion and a half dollars a year over the next ten years,” said Jim Bell, president of the board of directors of The Planetary Society and a professor of planetary science at Arizona State University. That $1.5-billion figure is what NASA’s planetary program was funded at in 2012.
The consequences of failing to fund NASA’s planetary program at that level are severe, the organization’s representatives argued. “We are in the middle of the golden age of space exploration,” said Emily Lakdawalla, senior editor at The Planetary Society. “If we don’t keep NASA’s planetary sciences funding where it needs to be in order to keep producing these small, medium, and large missions to explore all over the solar system, then we are going to bring the golden age of planetary exploration to an end, at least in the United States.”
“The reason I took this gig a couple of years ago,” said Bill Nye, the CEO of the society, “is because we’re at this turning point. We don’t want to end up in a situation where we fall behind, we stop exploring.”