In what feels like a completely endless debate about how the government should support its science agencies during economic hardship, it seems as though NASA is set to be the sacrificial lamb of budget balancing with almost $2 billion in cuts. Congress has just released its Appropriations bill that gives their views on how much federal money NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) should be given. Massive cuts are called for across the board, but no agency is set to lose as much as NASA.
To determine the federal budget, the President comes up with a budget request that the House of Representatives and the Senate then consider and come up with their own independent counter offers. The House and Senate must agree on budget appropriations before the budget becomes final. In his request, President Obama was relatively kind to NASA but the House apparently doesn’t see the same value in the agency. The House’s budget includes a total cut of $1.64 billion from last year which is almost $2 billion short of the President’s request.
The budget cut suggested by the house is 8.8% of NASA’s total budget. Now, because the Space Shuttle program is ending and the shuttles are being retired, cuts to NASA’s budget could certainly have been expected. According to Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy, the end of the shuttle program could have warranted as much as $1 billion in funding cuts. But the budget calls for $2 billion in cuts. So, what is on the chopping block?
The House bill states that all funding, in its entirety, will be yanked from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The telescope was set to be the successor of the Hubble Space Telescope. The JWST has been an ongoing project for years, and has experienced budget, schedule and management problems. But the project currently has all the pieces built, which are undergoing assembly, and NASA has shown dedication to the project and attempted to fix some of the problems that have plagued it.
JWST is an ambitious project, and it stands to become one of the most spectacular observatories ever built (if it ever actually gets built). The telescope plans call for a six meter mirror in space tuned for infra-red observations, which will allow it to see farther into space and in more detail than any telescope ever built.
This has many people wondering if canceling the project really is cost effective. Would an audit of the project and perhaps re-structuring be a better option? Many have argued that there are other government funded organizations that could be cut instead, but these each have their supporters and opponents as well.Questions also remain about how beneficial cutting NASA and the other science agencies budgets will really be toward fixing the defecit.
In addition to the cuts to NASA, the House bill calls for the NSF budget to hold steady at 2011 funding (which is $900 million less than the Presidential request), for NOAA to be cut by $100 million (2.2%) which is $1billion less than requested, and for the NIST to be cut by $50 million (6.5%) which is $300 million less than the Presidential request.
Before the bill becomes a reality, the Senate needs to come up with their version, and then the House and Senate bills must be reconciled. On the long road to establishing a budget, it will certainly be interesting to see which government agencies take the biggest hit, but it seems as though science is most certainly going to suffer some casualties.