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Saved? A House spending panel wants to block a White House plan to ground the SOFIA infrared telescope.

Saved? A House spending panel wants to block a White House plan to ground the SOFIA infrared telescope.


U.S. House Spending Panel Favors Planetary Science at NASA

NASA science programs—and in particular planetary science programs—would receive a funding boost under a proposed House of Representatives spending bill for fiscal year 2015. The measure would also block a White House proposal to shut down an airborne telescope and give NASA enough money to avoid having to shut down any of its aging planetary explorers.

The draft bill, released today and scheduled to be voted on Thursday by the full Committee on Appropriations, would bump NASA’s science directorate to $5.2 billion in the fiscal year that begins 1 October. That is a roughly 1%, or $220 million, jump over President Barack Obama’s request released in March.

NASA’s Planetary Science Division would receive $1.45 billion of the total—enough, the panel writes in a report accompanying the bill, to ensure the “extension of all healthy operating missions that continue to generate good scientific output.” That language is reassuring for planetary scientists, who have been worried that tight spending caps will force the agency to end one or more of six operating missions that still have life in them. The White House had essentially proposed defunding two of the missions—the Opportunity Mars rover and the 5-year-old Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter—in its request.

The restoration is “a good opening salvo that many in the planetary community support,” says Jim Bell, president of the Planetary Society, an advocacy organization based in Pasadena, California, and a planetary scientist at Arizona State University, Tempe.

Within the science division’s astrophysics budget, the House would also rescue the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a joint mission between NASA and the DLR, Germany’s space agency. SOFIA, an infrared telescope that rides in the back of a modified jumbo jet, holds appeal to both astronomers and planetary scientists, but its large operating expenses and long history of problems and delays had made it prime target for budget cutters. In the president’s request, NASA had called for cuts that would effectively ground the mission. But the House would provide $70 million for SOFIA.

Reinstating SOFIA would renew other governments’ faith that NASA can maintain its share of international partnerships, says Bell, noting that planetary scientists are still smarting from NASA’s departure from the European ExoMars mission, a planned rover. “SOFIA is a unique resource,” he says. “The last thing we need is yet another disappointment for our international partners.”

Within NASA’s human exploration division, the committee has questions and concerns about the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM)—a planned deep space mission to visit an asteroid and bring it closer to Earth. It’s not clear, the panel says in its report, whether ARM represents an important steppingstone en route to the human exploration of Mars. “A lot of support for ARM has been conditional on understanding more about what it’s going to cost,” Bell says. “I’m waiting to see more details come out. It seems that Congress is as well.”

The spending bill is likely to be approved by the committee tomorrow and will then go to the full House. The Senate is just beginning its parallel appropriations process. Many observers expect that final spending levels won’t be decided by Congress until after elections in November.