For an agency regularly called "adrift" without a mission, NASA will at least float through next year with a boatload of money for its science programs.
Yesterday Congress reached agreement on a spending deal for fiscal year 2015 that boosts the budget of the agency’s science mission by nearly 2% to $5.24 billion. The big winner within the division is planetary sciences, which received $160 million more than the president’s 2015 request in March. Legislators also maintained support for an infrared telescope mounted on a Boeing 747, a project that the White House had proposed grounding. NASA’s overall budget also rose by 2%, to $18 billion. That’s an increase of $364 million over 2014 levels, and half a billion dollars beyond the agency’s request.
Planetary scientists are thrilled not only that their discipline was supported but also that no other space science areas were taxed to pay for their increase. “They added nearly $300 million to the entire science mission directorate. No one paid the price for restoration of the cuts to planetary science. That’s a big deal,” says Casey Dreier, advocacy director for the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California. Congress is expected to pass the spending deal later this week, and Obama is expected to sign it into law.
The $1.44 billion planetary science division is directed to spend “not less than $100 million” on a mission to Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter with plate tectonics and a subsurface ocean that has intrigued astrobiologists. The mission has been a perennial battleground between Congress and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. OMB has viewed a Europa mission as too expensive for NASA when it is considering embarking on a Mars Sample Return mission. But legislators in districts with NASA-supported research centers like the idea, and Congress keeps giving the agency money to get started on the Europa mission. “There was astonishing support for Europa,” Dreier says. “Hopefully this is going to send that signal to the White House and OMB to ask for this new start.”
NASA’s earth science division got exactly what Obama asked for, at $1.77 billion. “We’re pleased to see that in an era of flat budgets, science is holding its own,” says Chris McEntee, executive director of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C.
In an effort to keep the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) focused on its expensive, flagship weather satellites, the Senate, in its version of the spending bill, had given NASA control of two smaller missions, Jason-3, an ocean altimetry satellite, and the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), a space weather satellite. But in the final reckoning, primary ownership of these missions would remain with NOAA.
The astrophysics division was funded at $1.33 billion, $70 million above the president’s request. The additional money will be used to continue flying the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a modified 747 jet with a telescope in its rear. That’s less than the NASA spent last year to operate SOFIA, but enough to allow the mission to keep going. In its 2015 request, the White House tried to cancel the expensive, long-suffering mission. The division also got $645 million that the agency says is needed to continue developing its flagship mission, the James Webb Space Telescope.
On the human spaceflight side, which accounts for about half of the agency’s budget, Congress continued to support both public and private approaches to getting humans into space. It gave $2.9 billion to continue developing the internal, "NASA-owned" successors to the space shuttle: the Space Launch System rocket and the Orion capsule that sits on top. But in giving $805 million to the commercial crew program, Congress also continued to support private efforts to develop human-rated rockets by companies such as SpaceX.
To see all of our stories on the 2015 budget, click here.