As NASA and the NSF’s astrophysics programs try to get back on track after a government shutdown lasting more than two weeks, those agencies are dealing with uncertain future budgets that are complicating planning for current and future programs, officials said Monday.
“Almost everything is in flux,” advised Paul Hertz, director of the astrophysics division in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, at the beginning of his presentation Monday to the Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics at the National Academies in Washington.
In the near term, Hertz said his division was dealing with the effects of the government shutdown. That included the cancellation of plans to fly high-altitude long-duration balloons carrying astronomy experiments above Antartica for the 2013-14 season because of the late start to the overall Antarctic field season caused by the shutdown. Nine flights by the SOFIA airborne observatory were also cancelled by the shutdown, while an x-ray instrument being developed by NASA for Japan’s Astro-H mission has been delayed for as much as five weeks, although Hertz said they are looking for ways to mitigate the delay. There may also be a small schedule adjustment to the James Webb Space Telescope due to the interruption of tests on the telescope’s backplane at the Marshall Space Flight Center during the shutdown, although that program in general is in good shape.
The big concern now is the state of the fiscal year 2014 budget. NASA is currently operating under a continuing resolution that funds the astrophysics program at a rate corresponding to an annualized level of $607 million, slightly below the $617 million is received post-sequester for 2013. (JWST is funded under a separate account, and is being protected from cuts because it is deemed an agency priority.) The NASA budget request called for $642 million for astrophysics in 2014. However, Hertz warned that if a second round of sequestration goes into effect in January, NASA overall would end up with $16.25 billion, and astrophysics would likely be cut to $592 million, give or take $10 million, he said. “That’s the kind of worst case one might imagine,” he said.
In that scenario, with astrophysics cut by about $50 million from the administration’s request, Hertz said he would be faced with some tough choices. “I don’t know if sequestration is going to happen, but I worry about how astrophysics will be funded, and realize $50 million in savings, this year,” he said. One area of concern is the “senior review” of ongoing astrophysics missions planned for early next year, when the agency determines if those missions are productive enough to continue funding. While two major space telescopes, Hubble and Chandra, will be insulated from the review, other missions may face termination in the senior review if sequestration does further cut the astrophysics budget. “If I get sequestration, we don’t have enough money to keep everything going,” he said.
Further exacerbating the budget challenge, he said, is the long-term uncertainty about budgets. Under current law, sequestration remains in effect for ten years, but budget requests from the administration assume that alternatives to it will be found that restore budgets. “If you told me that my budget would be 10 percent low forever, I would make decisions that had out-year savings,” Hertz said. “But if you tell me that I’m down 10 percent for one year, and then it comes back the next year, which is what the administration says… I make very different choices if it’s only a one-year cut than if it’s a forever cut.”
Hertz also revealed at the committee meeting that NASA is not implementing the controversial educational restructuring program unveiled in the administration’s 2014 budget request in April, which would have consolidated overall STEM education work in the federal government into a few agencies. “NASA will conduct E/PO [education and public outreach] in the current fiscal year, FY14,” he said. “NASA will continue doing STEM education.” The challenge, he said, is that there’s no funding for E/PO activities in the FY14 budget because of the restructuring plans; individual projects in his division will negotiate with him about how much E/PO they plan to do and the impacts on the overall project of reprogramming funding for them. How E/PO programs in general will be managed at NASA remains to be determined, he said.
The NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences is also facing funding uncertainties. In a presentation later Monday to the committee, division director James Ulvestad noted that planning back in 2010, when the astronomy decadal survey, titled “New Worlds, New Horizons,” was published, had his division’s budget at $297.8 million in FY13; the division actually got $232.5 million. “That gives an obvious reason why we can’t execute everything that was in ‘New Worlds, New Horizons,’” he said.
The situation for FY14 isn’t looking any better. The House and Senate versions of the spending bill that funds NSF offer very different numbers for the agency, with the Senate providing more than the House. Ulvestad warned that the division could face a five- to ten-percent cut in 2014, which could potentially delay the start of work on a new groundbased observatory, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). “That could, in fact, be something that we don’t learn about until the middle of the year,” he said, depending on when Congress reaches a final deal on the FY14 budget. “That’s obviously something pretty difficult to plan for.” He did note that, unlike in 2013, funding for facilities would not be protected at the expense of research grants if there are more cuts in 2014.
Current trends in his division, he said, could lead to having only funding in a year or two for individual investigators and large-scale facilities, with nothing in between. “We may have to make some tough decisions in a few months,” he said. “We’re aware of what those decisions might be, but we don’t want to be making them prematurely because we still believe that the President’s budget request is something we can execute and we would like to be able to execute it.”