Tough Cuts for Planetary Science In NASA’s 2013 Budget Proposal


As expected, NASA’s 2013 budget request calls for an overall decrease in funding, with especially tough cuts to planetary science and education. The budget proposal of $17.7 billion is a decrease of 0.3% or $59 million from the 2012 budget and puts NASA at its lowest level of funding in four years. President Obama’s budget request for NASA includes a flat budget through 2017, with no out-year growth even for inflation.

Using the phrase “very difficult fiscal times” countless times, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden tried to put an upbeat spin on the bad news during a press conference on the budget on February 13.

“We are having to make tough decisions because these are very difficult fiscal times,” he said. “However this is a stable budget that allows us to support a diverse portfolio and continues the work we started last year.”

Overview of NASA's budget request.

While the proposal includes continued funding for the agency’s human space programs —including $4 billion for space operations and $4 billion for human activities for the International Space Station, nearly $3 billion for the heavy-lift Space Launch System and Orion MPCV, along with $830 million for the commercial crew and cargo — planetary science took a huge hit, especially the Mars science program, considered by many to be the “crown jewel” of NASA’s planetary program.

Mars exploration would be cut by a whopping 38.5 percent, going from $587 million this year to $361 million in 2013. As predicted NASA has pulled out of the Exo-Mars collaboration with the European Space Agency, for dual Mars missions in 2016 and 2018, with no future flagship missions even in the offing, beyond the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory rover, now on its way to Mars.

“Flagship missions are essential for the nation,” said Bolden when asked about what could be expected for future missions, “but we just could not afford to do another one right now given the budget an these difficult fiscal times.”

The Science Mission Directorate budget, which includes planetary exploration, astronomy and Earth environment monitoring, would receive $4.911 billion in 2013 instead of the $5.07 billion it received in 2012.

The NASA education budget was cut $36 million, down from $136 million in 2012 to $100 million in 2013.

The only bright spot for potential future planetary missions is that a small amount of funding was included in the 2013 budget to look into the re-start of making Plutonium-238, the power source for outer-planet missions. However, the cut to exploration missions means there is no funding for any new missions to potentially use the power source, such as a spacecraft to study the moons of Jupiter or a Uranus orbiter, two projects that were a high priority in the Decadal Survey released by the science community in 2011. The reduction might also affect ongoing missions such as the remaining Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn. Those missions will be reviewed by NASA later this year.

This cut to planetary science has already been decried by many including the Planetary Society, which said the new proposal pushes planetary science “to the brink.”

“The priorities reflected in this budget would take us down the wrong path,” said Bill Nye, CEO of the Planetary Society. “Science is the part of NASA that’s actually conducting interesting and scientifically important missions. Spacecraft sent to Mars, Saturn, Mercury, the Moon, comets, and asteroids have been making incredible discoveries, with more to come from recent launches to Jupiter, the Moon, and Mars. The country needs more of these robotic space exploration missions, not less.”

The James Webb telescope, notorious for its cost overruns and delays, would get $627.6 million for 2013, up from $518.6 million in 2012 and $476.8 million in 2011. Many see JWST as responsible for draining money away from planetary science. JWST won’t launch until 2018 at the earliest.

Bolden said since NASA “replanned” JWST, they receive an accounting each month and so far the mission has been on-budget and on-time as far as meeting goals. “Through diligence and really paying attention to the budget and timeline, I think we can get this mission done,” Bolden said.

Two other bright spots in the budget was that funding for Earth observation satellites would be the same as 2012, at about $1.8 billion and the Space Technology program would get $699 million, up from the $569 million Congress approved for 2012.

As far as the human side, most officials were pleased with the numbers. The commercial Space Federation put out a statement saying that the “Commercial Crew program will enable American providers to free us from dependence on the Russian Soyuz for access to the International Space Station, a facility that American taxpayers have invested nearly $100 billion to build. NASA currently pays Russia more than $60 million per seat to access the Space Station, a price that is expected to rise above $70 million in the next few years.”

Executive Director Alex Saltman added, “With the Shuttle fleet retiring last year, Americans look forward to the day when we return our astronauts to space on American rockets. We are pleased that the Administration is requesting the funding necessary to make that happen. Now it’s Congress’s job to help put America back in space.”

As bad as the budget seems, according to some sources, things could have been much worse. The White House Office of Management and Budget had earlier asked NASA to submitted budget proposals at a 5, 10 or 15 percent cut. They may have been lucky to get only a .3% cut.

Here’s NASA’s upbeat video about the new budget:

For more information:
NASAs 2013 Budget webpage
NASA 2013 Budget Request Estimates(pdf)
2013 Budget Presentation (pdf)

21 Replies to “Tough Cuts for Planetary Science In NASA’s 2013 Budget Proposal”

  1. What! “0.3% or $59 million” What a joke! It should of been at least 10%-20% decrease if he was really serious about fixing the economy.
    As usual, in an election year, we see that getting reelected is more important than saving a nation (and most of the world economy) nearing economic ruin. Irresponsible. That’s what it is!

    1. Obama isn’t stupid; getting re-elected also depends on not gutting NASA.

      Delivering a %10 cut would be drastic – Obama would lose an immense amount of support from everyone whose livelihoods depend on the space industry, and the republican nominee (TBA) would suddenly have a lot of ammunition. Even if gutting NASA did help to save the economy, it definitely wouldn’t win Obama his re-election.

      1. “Obama isn’t stupid; getting re-elected also depends on not gutting NASA.”

        Economy, social issues, foreign policy…you want to tick off as few people as possible on the way to the White House, but space policy has *never* been make-or-break for *any* president.

        Even the press that Gingrich has given it lately doesn’t change that. I’ve been a ‘space geek’ long enough to know that only a small slice of the population is one too. NASA support has always been a mile wide, but an inch deep. Almost everyone likes what NASA does on some level, but not all of them are willing to spend serious (whatever your definition of that may be) money on it.

        Like it or not, it is just not that important to most people.

      2. I agree that, in general, space policy certainly isn’t make-or-break. But a president certainly could turn it into a break by gutting it. A 10% would give republicans a talking point that would last right up to the election, and the media wouldn’t let it go either. That could lose votes beyond those employed by the space industry.

  2. When will we learn that putting money into R&D gets you out of financial troubles. Letting banks offer mortgages to people who can’t pay for them is what gets you into trouble.

    Vote for space science or vote for navel gazing.

    1. Um… This might be true about R&D, but doesn’t all public money has to come from somewhere. I.e. The taxpayers. Banks and mortgages are not the central problem of the US economy, it is blown-out Federal debt and deficit. America is living on borrowed money not space science.

      I say far more sensible is to start manage your debts, concentrate in better managing your spending, and set your goals when it is affordable and you have petty cash to splurge on these dreams.

      As to your argument here… Let’s see. If you have maxed-out your credit card, and you are unable to pay the interest nor able to secure any more credit —, R&D spending is simply the least of your concerns!

      Really. The true central argument is about distribution of spending. My issue, is that R&D, for example, could it no be spent on improved health care, better cures for disease or cancer, or even better education in science and technology? (Is this too navel gazing?)

      At least NASA’s $17 billion-odd budget has not been slashed altogether (and virtually no one here or in similar stories in recent months that it be slashed to zero!)

      1. Money is not a physical quantity that obeys a continuity or conservation law. Money is something we fabricate — it is not actually real in the same way electric charge or mass- energy is. The way we got out of the last economic depression was to acknowledge this and to use the one source which can in effect create money — the Fed or the treasury. This was done in 2008 by GW Bush to bail out AIG, and carried on with Obama. However this just propped up the banksters who got us in these troubles. The 1930s approach was to use this power to employ people, and when FD Roosevelt was elected unemployment stood at nearly 30% and by 1939 it was 10%. The simple fact is that money is the stuff which is created in much the same way the role of the banker in the Monopoly game injects money — pass go and collect $200.

        We have had three decades of right winged politics that has largely dominated this nation for the most part, which includes conservative Democrats. Through that time period the middle class has shrunk, the deficits have mushroomed ($.7trillion to $13trillion), the nation has lost leading roles is areas of technology, we have lost industrial capacity, national infrastructure has fallen apart, we have of the developed nations assume leading stats on illiteracy, poverty, failing health and so forth.

        If this continues much longer the US will define a new class of nations in the world; the de-developed nation or neo-third world.


      2. “My issue, is that R&D, for example, could it no be spent on improved health care, better cures for disease or cancer, or even better education in science and technology? (Is this too navel gazing?)”

        You can throw all the money in the world at science and tech education, but if you don’t have things to actually inspire the students (like NASA), then you won’t get diddley for it. As a scientist, I know what got me into the game – it was NASA, it was Hubble, it was Voyager and Galileo and Sojourner, it was David Attenborough and Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking. In short, it was spending money on pure research and the scientists that do it and promote it, because knowledge like this has intrinsic and inspirational value. All of my colleagues are the same – nobody got into science because they had a well-equipped chem lab at school. Those things are helpful but not sufficient.

        As for the old ‘we could spend it on cancer’ argument – yes, we could. Just like the many billions of dollars we currently throw at it. In fact, why not just cut funding to everything to spend it on cancer research instead? Why not cancel useless sports games and put the money towards something that actually achieves something, other than a bunch of guys running around slapping each other on the bum? Why doesn’t everyone sell their car and buy a smaller crappier one and give the left-over money to cancer research? Or to feed the starving children in Africa? The irony is that MANY advances in medical treatment and other areas of technological development have come from unpredicted spin-offs from space-based technology. Scratch that – pure science based technology!

      3. Truly, my point was only against Steve R&D comment singling out that NASA’s was the only worthwhile R&D that was not ‘navel gazing.’

  3. We all know this wasn’t Obama’s idea. He’s trying to placate a congress in which half of its members don’t even believe in science. You know which “half” I speak of. Send the Cutpublicans to Mars.

    1. Not “Obama’s Idea?” It’s his budget, Adam. And his last budget was defeated by a Democrat-controlled Senate, 94-zip; not a single vote did it receive. This one is another press release budget, just as DOA.

    2. There are plenty of these know-nothing Republicans who would love nothing more than to see all scientific research that is not military oriented or privately supported (product development) closed down. There are rumblings over whether Kitt Peak will be closed down and possible dire future cuts in astronomical research. Experimental elementary particle physics in the US is essentially gone with the closure of the Tevatron. There are 4 bills in state legislatures to promote creation science right now, the Bible know-nothings are back with that crap, and there are growing political pressures on universities to align research according to right winged politics.

      In some ways I actually applaud the growth of Chinese science and space science. With their economic capacity they may end up as the leader in experimental science in the middle part of this century. The United States over the last 30 years has been a growing march of morons, and I suspect this nation will bow out of the intellectual, scientific and technological future trajectory.


    3. Really ?? the problem are the Republicans ? What about the trillions the Democrats need to spend to butter up their votebanks, those high speed trains, those green tech… ? Also I would love to know, do you consider this “global warming” bullshit to be science ?

      1. Obviously you’re a dumb-ass, Atanu. This is a science related website. Please post elsewhere, you’re a distraction to intelligent discussion. Thanks.

  4. Here’s some numbers for all to chew on:

    US Debt in 1988 : $6 Trillion
    US Debt in 2008 : $9 Trillion (or +$3T in 20 yrs.)
    US Debt in 2012 : $15.35 Trillion (or +$6 Trillion on 4 yrs.)

    Definitely out of control….

    $26 Billion to bail out “underwater” mortgages….
    Think what NASA could do with that $26B!

  5. If one looks at the fact that NASA’s budget of $17.7 billion is 0.47% of the proposed national budget of $3.8 trillion, and they’re proposing a cut of .3% of NASA’s 2012 budget, which works out to $59 million. Now, is that $59 million really going to help reduce the national debt—or will it just get lost in the pork-barrel legislation that seems to be prevalent? When you consider the impact it has on NASA and its plans for future space exploration and the benefits it will bring, is it really worth it? These projects stimulate employment and provide opportunities for technological spinoffs that can further stimulate the economy. And, we’re not even talking about the educational benefits by getting young people interested in and excited about science and engineering.

    Speaking of education. Why in the world, with our decaying education system, would you cut NASA’s education budget? Cut by $36 million from 2012’s allotment of $136 million—26%! We have no business cutting any educational programs. If we want to save money we should be looking at how we can run them more efficiently and put more children into the programs. This is an investment in our future. Our 401K for the nation is the education of the children today. We can’t afford to let our technical edge get any duller than it is now.

    There’s more if you want to read it at:

  6. Okay. $3 billion a year for a new heavy-lift launch system that will commence operations in 5-10 years. To where? What then? Just more Apollo-style missions? Launch and return and repeat? Where is the sustainability in this, the long-term planning? If congress/senate continue on with this half-hearted approach to space exploration, it’s going to backfire. We will be right back here in this predicament decades later.

    And all this at the expense of the actual few programs in NASA that have been overly successful (Yes Mars).

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