The House Makes NASA A Counteroffer It Probably Can’t Refuse

NASA's new budget could mean the end of their Asteroid Redirect Mission. Image: NASA (Artist's illustration)

It looks like mostly good news in NASA’s budget for 2017. The Commerce, Justice, and Science sub-committee is the House of Representatives body that oversees NASA finances, and they have released details on how they would like to fund NASA in 2017. According to their plan, NASA’s budget would be $19.5 billion. That amount is $500 million more than President Obama had asked for, and $200 million above what the Senate had proposed.

If the bill is approved by the House of Representatives, then this budget would be NASA’s largest in 6 years (adjusted for inflation.)

While it is good news overall, some projects that were in NASA’s plans will not be funded, according to this bill.

On the chopping block is the Asteroid Re-Direct Mission (ARM). ARM is an ambitious robotic mission to visit a large asteroid near Earth, collect a boulder weighing several tons from its surface, and put it into a stable orbit around a Moon. Once the boulder was in a stable orbit, astronauts would visit it to explore and collect samples for return to Earth. NASA had touted this mission as an important step to advancing the technologies needed for a human mission to Mars.

ARM was an intriguing and ambitious mission, but it looks like it will be unfunded. The sub-committee explained that decision by saying “The Committee believes that neither a robotic nor a crewed mission to an asteroid appreciably contribute to the overarching mission to Mars,” adding that “…the long-term costs of launching a robotic craft to the asteroid, followed by a crewed mission, are unknown and will divert scarce resources away from developing technology and equipment necessary for missions to Mars.”

Another area seeing its funding cut is the Earth Science division. That division would lose $231 million compared to 2016.

There are winners in this bill, though. The Planetary Science division would receive a $215 million boost in 2017, compared to 2016. This means a 2022 mission to Europa is still on the books, and NASA can select two more Discovery class missions.

Beyond the numbers, the Commerce, Justice, and Science sub-committee also signalled its support for a human presence on the Moon. The sub-committee stated that “NASA is encouraged to develop plans to return to the Moon to test capabilities that will be needed for Mars, including habitation modules, lunar prospecting, and landing and ascent vehicles.” This is fantastic news.

The Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion program will also continue to receive healthy funding. These two programs are key to NASA’s long term plans, so their stable funding is good news.

There are some groovy technologies that will receive seed funding in this proposed budget.

One of these is a tiny helicopter that would work in conjunction with a rover on the surface of Mars. This solar-powered unit would fly ahead of a rover, acting as a scout to locate hazards and places of interest. This project would receive $15 million.

With a body the size of a tissue box, this helicopter would partner with a Martian rover, and help the rover cover more ground in a day. Image: NASA
With a body the size of a tissue box, this helicopter would partner with a Martian rover, and help the rover cover more ground in a day. Image: NASA

Another new technology receiving seed money is the Starshade. The Starshade would augment the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). WFIRST is a space telescope designed to study dark energy, exoplanets, and infrared astrophysics. The Starshade would be separate from the WFIRST, and by blocking the light from a distant star, would allow WFIRST to image planets orbiting that star. The goal would be to detect the presence of oxygen, methane, and other chemicals associated with life, in the atmosphere of exoplanets.

An artist's illustration of the Starshade deployed near its companion telescope. Image: NASA
An artist’s illustration of the Starshade deployed near its companion telescope. Image: NASA

The funding bill also directs NASA to consider forms of propulsion that could propel a craft at 10% of the speed of light. This includes Bussard ramjets, matter-antimatter reactors, beamed energy systems, and anti-matter catalyzed fusion reaction. The bill asks that within a year of being passed, NASA creates a draft reporting addressing interstellar propulsion, and that a roadmap be put in place for further development of these systems. The hope is that one of these systems will be in place for a trip to Alpha Centauri in 2069, which will be the 100 year anniversary of the Apollo Moon landing.

It should be noted that these numbers are not approved yet. Some of these numbers go back and forth between the levels of government before they are finalized. It would take a lesson on governance structure to explain how that all works, but suffice it to say that although they’re not finalized, yet, things look good overall for NASA.

Imagine What Could Be Done With a “Penny4NASA”

If you’re reading this then you’re probably a big fan of space exploration. And while on one hand you could say that we are now living in a “golden age” of exploration, what with the ongoing missions there are around the Solar System and the new discoveries being made on an almost weekly basis about our Universe, on the other hand it seems like we are getting more and more “grounded” as human explorers, with still years to go before the first footprints are made on Mars, an ever-growing span since we last walked on the Moon, and steadily-shrinking or stagnant budgets that can’t support all the missions that DO exist — and sometimes cancel them altogether.

“We have discovered amazing places. But imagine what’s hiding where we haven’t even looked?”


In order for missions to ever get off the ground, they need to be funded. Right now NASA — still arguably the leader in space exploration among world agencies — receives a little over 0.4 percent of every U.S. tax dollar. Less than half a penny. That’s what NASA explores the Solar System with, what makes our knowledge of the Universe — from the farthest visible reaches right down to our own planet Earth — even possible. What if NASA were to receive a full one percent? A whole penny from every dollar? That’d still be only a quarter of what NASA worked with to put men on the Moon in 1969, but it’d be more than double what it gets now.

A penny for NASA… this is the goal of Penny4NASA.org, an outreach group that strives to increase the funding — if just by a little — of the world’s most accomplished, inspirational, and powerful space exploration administration. (Before… you know, it isn’t.)

The video above was created for Penny4NASA by artist and animator Brad Goodspeed, and reminds us of what NASA has achieved in its 50-year history, of what its goals are (or at least should be) and, unfortunately, why many of them have remained unattained. NASA needs support — our support — or else its candles will stay unlit and our windows and doors to the Universe will slowly but surely close.

How can you help? Well for one thing, stay excited about space and science (and get others excited too!) Interest is the key to making sure people don’t lose sight of what’s happening in the field; you might be surprised to hear the misinformation that’s been passed around. (No, NASA isn’t “dead.”) And let your policy-makers know that space exploration and the investment in technology and innovation that goes along with it is important to you — the Planetary Society has a convenient page where you can find links to write to your state representative here. And finally you can support groups like Penny4NASA, made up of enthusiastic young professionals who want to see our nation’s past successes in space exploration continued into their future.

“America is fading right now. Nobody’s dreaming about tomorrow anymore. NASA knows how to dream about tomorrow — if the funding can accommodate it, if the funding can empower it.”
– Neil deGrasse Tyson

Want more inspiration? Read this excerpt from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Space Chronicles on TheWeek.com here.

Video credit: Brad Goodspeed/Penny4NASA.org

Sequester Cancels NASA Outreach

 

Well, it looks like it’s finally happened: the U.S. sequester — a “series of across-the-board cuts to government agencies totaling $1.2 trillion over 10 years” (CNN) — has finally hit NASA… right where it hurts, too: in public outreach and STEM programs. (UPDATE: some clarifications as to what this means — namely, that nothing’s actually been “canceled” but rather subject to review and possibly suspension — can be found at the end of this article. –JM)

In an internal memo issued on the evening of Friday, March 22, the Administration notes that “effective immediately, all education and public outreach activities should be suspended, pending further review. In terms of scope, this includes all public engagement and outreach events, programs, activities, and products developed and implemented by Headquarters, Mission Directorates, and Centers across the Agency, including all education and public outreach efforts conducted by programs and projects.”

Bummer.

Read the full memo from NASA Public Affairs below:

Subject: Guidance for Education and Public Outreach Activities Under Sequestration

As you know, we have taken the first steps in addressing the mandatory spending cuts called for in the Budget Control Act of 2011. The law mandates a series of indiscriminate and significant across-the-board spending reductions totaling $1.2 trillion over 10 years.

As a result, we are forced to implement a number of new cost-saving measures, policies, and reviews in order to minimize impacts to the mission-critical activities of the Agency. We have already provided new guidance regarding conferences, travel, and training that reflect the new fiscal reality in which we find ourselves. Some have asked for more specific guidance at it relates to public outreach and engagement activities. That guidance is provided below.

Effective immediately, all education and public outreach activities should be suspended, pending further review. In terms of scope, this includes all public engagement and outreach events, programs, activities, and products developed and implemented by Headquarters, Mission Directorates, and Centers across the Agency, including all education and public outreach efforts conducted by programs and projects.

The scope comprises activities intended to communicate, connect with, and engage a wide and diverse set of audiences to raise awareness and involvement in NASA, its goals, missions and programs, and to develop an appreciation for, exposure to, and involvement in STEM. Audiences include employees, partners, educators, students, and members of the general public. The scope encompasses, but is not limited to:

– Programs, events, and workshops.
– Permanent and traveling exhibits, signage, and other materials.
– Speeches, presentations, and appearances, with the exception of technical presentations by researchers at scientific and technical symposia.
– Video and multimedia products in development (and renewal of existing products).
– Web and social media sites in development (excludes operational sites).
– External and internal publications, with the exception of Scientific and Technical Information as defined by NPD 2200.1B.
– Any other activity whose goal is to reach out to external and internal stakeholders and the public concerning NASA, its programs, and activities.

Additional information regarding the waiver and review process will be issued by the Associate Administrators for Communications and Education. The Agency has already made tough choices about conferences and travel. For those activities planned to be held between the date of this memorandum through April 30, 2013, that your organization deems to be Agency mission-critical, the Headquarters Offices of Communications and Education will conduct a waiver process to promptly evaluate those specific efforts.

For future activities, the Offices of Communications and Education have established a process to assess and determine, in light of the current budget situation, what education and public outreach activities should be determined Agency mission critical and thereby be continued or implemented. We are requesting Mission Directorates and Headquarters organizations submit a summary of activities, including those planned by their respective programs and projects. We are also requesting that Centers submit a summary of Center-sponsored or supported activities. For public outreach activities, these should be submitted to David Weaver, Associate Administrator for Communications, no later than April 15, 2013. For education activities, these should be submitted to Leland Melvin, Associate Administrator for Education, also no later than April 15, 2013. Required summary and waiver documentation is being provided for distribution to Mission Directorates, Centers, programs, and projects through the Communications and Education Coordinating Councils. The Headquarters Office of Communications, working in conjunction with the Office of Education, will review the requested data and will make a timely and appropriate determination regarding what activities will go forward as planned.

This guidance is to be applied to all NASA employees, civil servants, and contractors (working through their contract officers). Leadership in our Centers, Mission Directorates, as well as individual program and project managers are responsible for ensuring that all public engagement activities, including the education and public outreach efforts conducted by programs and projects, are suspended and submitted to the review process. This guidance applies to existing and future efforts at least through the end of FY2013.

As our budgetary situation evolves over the coming months, NASA senior managers will continue to review this guidance and adjust, as appropriate. We appreciate your cooperation during this challenging fiscal period. Any questions on this guidance should be directed to David Weaver, Associate Administrator for Communications, Leland Melvin, Associate Administrator for Education. Dr. Elizabeth Robinson, Chief Financial Officer, or David Radzanowski, Chief of Staff.

Source: SpaceRef.com and NASA Watch

Note: hopefully this is more a sign of the formation of an internal review process than an all-out moratorium on programs… stay tuned for more news regarding this. Updates to be posted below.

Update: SpaceRef has posted an additional memo regarding exemptions from immediate suspension, notably “mission announcement media events and products, breaking news activities, and responses to media inquiries.” See the full memo here.

Update #2: According to an article on AmericaSpace, the Administration’s popular NASA Socials will still be held — events where select social media followers of various NASA accounts are invited to participate in public events and behind-the-scenes VIP tours — plus other social activities will still be taking place. (Although neither the article above nor the original one on SpaceRef specifically mentioned cancellation of the Socials, the memo’s bullet list does seem to imply as much.) This according to Deputy Associate Administrator for Communications Bob Jacobs. Read the full article here.

Also, Scott Lewis has an article up regarding this and the importance of NASA’s outreach programs to the public… check it out on his site KnowTheCosmos.com.

Update #3 3/23: After discussing this online today with Bob Jacobs, Deputy Associate Administrator for Communications, I learned that while most expenditures will now be critically reviewed first, it’s not like NASA is simply canceling all their programs wholesale.

“There’s a waiver process in place and there will be exemptions for mission activities…most activities will continue, I am confident of that,” Bob said. “But there are always things you can do better or more efficient, and these cuts are going to force the entire government to reduce services.”

“The more money saved the more likely you can avoid furloughs and maintain safe mission operations, which is the agency’s priority,” Bob added.

 

The Cost of Exploring Space: Film vs. Reality

We all know that space exploration, while certainly not the largest expenditure of most countries, doesn’t come cheap. But neither do big-budget science fiction films, either. Special effects, sets, special effects, popular acting talent… special effects… those all come with hefty price tags that make sci-fi and fantasy films costly ventures — although bigger definitely isn’t always better. If you were to compare the price of real space exploration missions (which provide actual information) to the costs of movies about space exploration (which provide “only” entertainment) what would you expect to find?

This infographic does just that:

exploring-space-720

“Prometheus’ movie budget would be enough to keep the search for real aliens going for another 52 years.”

Wow. (Maybe they should have just written a check to SETI.)

Infographic provided by Neo Mammalian Studios and paydayloan.co.uk. U.S.S. Enterprise © CBS Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Final Push: Help Uwingu Create a New Concept for Funding Space Exploration and Astronomy

We’ve written about Uwingu previously, and this creative new concept for creating funding for space exploration and astronomy is now in their final push to reach their Indigogo goal of raising an initial $75,000 through their Indiegogo page (similar to Kickstarter) to get the company going. After that, they hope to be self-sufficient and build enough resources to be a source of grants and funding for space and astronomy research. Indigogo provided the group a rare extension in their funding-raising drive, which now goes through Monday night, September 24 at 11:59PM Pacific Time.

Why Uwingu?

“It seems like every single year there is a funding problem for space researchers and educators, and every year it is something different,” said one the people behind Uwingu, Alan Stern, speaking on Colorado Public Radio. “It’s the economy or Congress or budget overruns, or cuts from the presidential administration, but every year there is a budget battle. … We started to think, what could we do that could make a difference?”

Stern is a huge name in the space and planetary science community, and he’s currently the principal investigator on the New Horizons mission to Pluto, and was formerly Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate.

Stern and the impressive group of individuals from the space and astronomy community who have teamed up to do this had the idea of creating a for-profit company that sells space themed products that children, educators, hobbyists — a wide range of people — who can purchase and enjoy. Half of all revenue go towards funding space research and education, and the other will go towards the costs of creating what they sell. Plans are to sell entertaining and educational apps about space and other themes, starting next month.

“We are asking people to go the Indiegogo page, take a look and consider participating, and then to please pass it on to others you know.” Stern told Universe Today. “For everyone 10 people you send it to, maybe one will contribute. This needs to grow organically by people passing it on through the internet. We’re hoping the space and astronomy people will help give us a start, but when it launches with the real first products out into the broader public, we think it will be a real breakout.”

“If we can get that message across, I think it will fly. I have faith in this,” Stern added.

As the funding period closes out, Stern will be on the Coast-to-Coast radio show with George Noory from 10-midnight PDT on Monday, September 24, so listen to him talk about Uwingu, New Horizons and the other missions he is part of.

To contribute to the project, or to learn more about Uwingu, visit the company’s Indiegogo page: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/180221

Senate Saves the James Webb Space Telescope!

The 2012 fiscal year appropriation bill, marked up today by the Senate, allows for continued funding of the James Webb Space Telescope and support up to a launch in 2018! Yes, it looks like this bird is going to fly.

JWST's mirror segments are prepped for testing at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. NASA/Chris Gunn.

The James Webb Space Telescope will be the premier observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide. It will study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System. JWST will be a large infrared telescope with a 6.5-meter primary mirror.

Thanks to everyone who contacted their representatives and expressed their support of the JWST, to all the websites out there that made it particularly simple to do so, and of course to all the state representatives who stood behind the program and didn’t allow it to get mothballed. The space science community thanks you and the current and future generations of astronomers, physicists, cosmologists and explorers thank you.

“In a spending bill that has less to spend, we naturally focus on the cuts and the things we can’t do. But I’d like to focus on what we can do. The bill invests more than $12 billion in scientific research and high impact research and technology development, to create new products and new jobs for the future.”

– CJS Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski

In addition to continued funding for the telescope the 2012 bill also allots the National Aeronautics and Space Administration $17.9 billion (a reduction of $509 million or 2.8 percent from the 2011 enacted level) and preserves NASA’s portfolio balanced among science, aeronautics, technology and human space flight investments, including the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle, the heavy lift Space Launch System, and commercial crew development.

In this tighter economy, all of the agencies funded under the bill are also called on to be better stewards of taxpayers’ dollars, and waste and overspending will be much more closely monitored.

Read the bill summary here.

Go JWST!

NOTE: While the JWST program has been specifically included in today’s markup, the bill itself still needs to be approved by the full appropriations committee and then go to the Senate floor for a vote. It then must be reconciled with the House version before receiving final appropriation. Still, this is definitely one step closer to getting the JWST off the ground! Read more on ScienceInsider here.

You can show your continued support for the JWST by liking the Save the James Webb Space Telescope Facebook page and – even more importantly – by contacting your congressperson and letting them know you care!