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Appropriations Status Update, Update: Now with More Details

Wednesday, May 7, 2014 - 15:34

Well, I guess I jumped the gun a bit yesterday, because today brought much more detail on the proposal from the House of Representatives' Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies (CJS). The subcommittee released the report that accompanies their bill this morning, in preparation for tomorrow's markup in the full House Appropriations Committee. The report indicates the subcommittee's intent in passing the bill, detailing how they intend for the top-line numbers and other language in the bill to be interpreted by agencies in their jurisdiction. For NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD), for example, the report indicates how much the subcommittee intends for each division—and in some cases, programs within the divisions—to receive under that top line. This subcommittee also has jurisdiction over the National Science Foundation (NSF), but there is little relevant detail in the report for the astronomical sciences at NSF.

Let's start with a top-line breakdown of SMD's budget, and then go through the other relevant language in the report (all numbers are millions of USD; the FY 2014 Operating Plan can be found here). 

Account FY 2014 Op Plan FY 2015 Request FY 2015 House CJS
NASA $17,646.5 $17,461.0 $17,896.0
    Science Mission Directorate $5,148.2 $4,972.0 $5,193.0
Earth Science $1,824.9 $1,770.0 $1,750.0
Planetary Science $1,343.4 $1,280.0 $1,450.0
Astrophysics $678.3 $607.0 $680.0
James Webb Space Telescope $658.2 $645.0 $645.0
Heliophysics $643.3 $669.0 $668.0

As noted yesterday, both the NASA top line and the SMD top line would see significant increases over the PBR, and SMD would see a modest increase relative to the FY 2014 level. The largest increases under that top line would go to Planetary Science and Astrophysics, relative to the PBR.

As you probably know, the President's Budget Request (PBR) this year proposed to mothball the Astrophysics Division's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) in FY 2015 outside of any scientific community review processes (e.g., NASA's Senior Review). There was much discussion around this proposal in Congress and in the scientific community after the request was released, and many have been watching closely to see what the appropriators would do. The subcommittee signaled clearly in the report that they intend for $70M to go toward SOFIA operations costs in FY 2015; for reference, NASA's operating plan for FY 2014 includes $84.4M for SOFIA this year, and the FY 2014 budget request indicated a notional budget of $87.3M for SOFIA in FY 2015. So there will still be work to do to fund SOFIA at projected levels, for which the appropriators have directed NASA to "continue seeking third-party partners whose additional funding support would restore SOFIA’s budget to its full operational level." SOFIA is an 80/20 parternship between NASA and the German Space Agency (DLR).

The Hubble Space Telescope was also proposed for a $23M reduction in FY 2015 based on the assumption that the program could use reserve and carryover funding from previous years (see NASA's FY 2015 budget request). The subcommittee's bill would reduce that cut to $18M stating, "The recommendation for Astrophysics restores the $5,000,000 unallocated reduction proposed for the Hubble Space Telescope (HST)." 

Since the 1990s, SMD missions have devoted some fraction of their budgets to education and public outreach (E/PO) activities, most recently 1 percent. The FY 2014 request proposed a dramatic reorganization (as part of a government-wide science, technology, engineering and math education reorganization proposal) that would have shifted an estimated total of $48M worth of E/PO activities out of the directorate, either to the NASA Office of Education or out of the agency entirely. This year's request proposed a consolidated program for all SMD E/PO via a budget line of $15M for all SMD E/PO bookkept in the Astrophysics division.* This would represent a cut of more than two-thirds relative to past levels, a cut the House CJS subcommittee would partially reverse by allocating $30M to these activities. 

In total, while the proposal increases the Astrophysics Division budget by $73M above the request, the total amount of budget direction in the report is $90M. Accounting for the $12M in the request for SOFIA, this leaves about $5M worth of budget direction that is not covered by the $73M division top-line increase. Thus, there may still be tough choices ahead under this proposal.*

Within the Planetary Science Division, there is much more suballocation within the report:

Account FY 2014 Op Plan FY 2015 Request FY 2015 House CJS
    Planetary Science $1,343.4 $1,280.0 $1,450.0
Research and Analysis $130.0 $165.4 $170.0
New Frontiers $231.6 $281.5 $286.0
Mars Exploration $288.0 $279.3 $302.0
Discovery $285.0 $230.8 $266.0
Outer Planets $152.4 $95.7 $181.0
Planetary Science Technology $143.1 $137.2 $155.0

First off, all parts of the Planetary Science Division's budget saw at least modest increases within the $170M increase for the division overall. Within the large Outer Planets increase, there is a $100M allocation for pre-formulation of a Europa mission that meets the science goals of the most recent decadal survey. There is also language in the Technology section of the report allocating an additional $18M (of the $155M) for "assessments and development of promising technologies and techniques for the study and characterization of the surface and subsurface of Europa, including such technologies as landers, rovers, penetrators, submersibles, seismometers and sample analyzers." 

The $5M additional for New Frontiers (relative to the request) is directed to go toward formulating future missions, an area of major concern in the PBR, which has no funding for future missions in its five notional out-years. Of the total for Mars Exploration, no less than $100M is to go toward the Mars 2020 mission. While expressing their concern about the slow cadence of Discovery missions relative the decadal survey recommendation, the subcommittee also allocated $30M, of the additional $36M for Discovery overall, toward future mission development. With that, they direct NASA to accelerate its 2017 Annoucement of Opportunity forward to 2016. 

The Heliophysics Division and James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) both see fewer column inches in the report compared to the rest of SMD. For Heliophysics, the subcommittee directs NASA to increase cadence of Explorer missions in the future, urging them to accelerate funding for future missions from FY 2017 to FY 2016 (presumably in the next budget request). Otherwise, the division is funded at the request level (subject to rounding error) and no changes below the top-line are directed. JWST is funded at the request level as well, which is on target with the re-baselined plan set in 2011. In the report, the subcommittee directs NASA to provide quarterly briefings rather than quarterly reports, as it watches closely over the flagship project's progress toward a 2018 launch under its $8B cost cap.

The full House Appropriations Committee is set to consider this proposal tomorrow morning (8 May) at 10 am, at which time there may be amendments that could change any of the above. Once the bill passes out of committee, it must pass the whole House before moving on to be reconciled with a companion bill in the Senate (which is still being written). In other words, we are far from through, and nothing is yet set in stone. We'll be keeping our eyes on all of it as we move forward!

*This post has been edited to clarify a factual error regarding the SMD E/PO budget line bookkept in the Astrophysics Division budget. The post previously misstated that this would be a new budget line, when in fact it existed in previous budgets. In FY 2013, this line held $10.1 million for SMD-wide E/PO, which was in addition to the 1% of each mission's budget. The substantial change in organization for E/PO is that missions would no longer contribute 1% of their budgets to those activities.

Joshua H. Shiode
John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow
American Astronomical Society
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