Monday, February 20, 2012

FY2013, JWST and NASA Budget Woes

The Obama Administration has released its budget proposal for fiscal year 2013 (FY2013). Generally speaking, it is a formalized recommendation for how the entire Federal Government will spend ("appropriate") money in the coming year. Both houses of U.S. Congress must now review Obama's proposed budget and either approve or amend it. Most of the time, Congress is unhappy with the details and make changes to the Administration's proposed budget to reflect the interests of the sitting Congress; eventually, they come to a compromise. Business as usual: a lengthy, convoluted process. And that is under normal conditions. In recent times, the word "austerity" has been thrown around quite a bit; code-word for sweeping budget cuts.

During the last few budget cycles, the U.S. government has been under record financial strain, as have many governments around the world. Budgets everywhere have been affected. States are showing serious deficits. Local governments are laying off employees and closing facilities. Bankruptcies are threatened in several places (see largest municipal bankruptcy in US history). And in Washington DC, politicians argue passionately over how to cut costs to reflect this new climate.

These times of economic austerity have affected NASA deeply. But how? If you remember the events of summer and autumn 2011, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was placed on the budgetary chopping block. President Obama asked for $374 million and a House Subcommittee rejected this proposal, allocating $0 to the program. By November 2011, JWST was seemingly saved at the last minute and $530 million in funding was restored to the telescope for FY12. The Webb Telescope was not the only NASA program that was considered for cancellation - many other programs have been and continue to be affected. This kind of stress has been fracturing the scientific community as respective scientific professions rally around the projects to which they are closest. It has been a brutally difficult time for public science and space science in particular.

So, has the situation calmed or intensified, based on the new FY2013 budget proposal from the Obama Administration? Well, for starters, there is an overall 0.3% reduction in NASA's budget (read: a 5% reduction from the President's NASA budget proposal in FY12). You might say, well that doesn't sound so bad. Not so fast. That's a loss of $59 million. That kind of money will affect several programs. As a result of this budget proposal, NASA has cancelled the ExoMars partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA), which included new missions in 2016 and 2018. Deep cuts to outer solar system exploration and education have also been made in this budget proposal.

According to NASA, the budgetary pain will be felt across the agency, but most directly in programs like Mars Exploration (losing $226 million - was $587 million, now will be $361 million) [Check out this statement by the Planetary Society regarding the budget situation].

It is important to note that the primary goal of saveJWST (that's us) is to keep a watchful eye over the Hubble of the Next Generation. The budget proposal keeps JWST running, so this amazing new telescope will be finished according to current plans and current funding (indeed, it is finishing ahead of schedule in many respects). We're thrilled to see such strong support for the Webb Telescope from the White House and NASA HQ, but the proposed cuts to planetary science are deeply unfortunate. While cutting government spending is a noble goal at any level of government, prioritizing what money is spent is very important in its own right. The problem might just be that the politicians in Washington fail to realize just how important NASA is to the U.S. and world.

As Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson eloquently puts it, “The most powerful agency on the dreams of a nation is currently underfunded to do what it needs to be doing, and that’s making dreams come true.”

From an economic standpoint, NASA provides the U.S. with phenomenal return on the public investment. Take a look at some of the following statistics:
NASA FY2003 impact on individual states.
Image courtesy of NASA. Click to embiggen.

Putting the money aside, NASA also provides a tremendous amount of innovation to U.S. culture. Many of the technologies that we rely on as a nation have their origins in this famed space administration, or have been improved by it (here and here and here, for examples). These factors add up to NASA being quite an economic engine. In a time when the influence and power of the U.S. is said to be fading, NASA provides a trump cardan avenue of job growth and industry creation, and a magnificent source of inspiration for the next generation of scientists, mathematicians, engineers, technologists, educators, and science literate citizens.
Footage from the now dead Spirit Rover - one of the great successes
of the Mars Exploration Program.

Again, while our primary goal at saveJWST is to advocate for the James Webb Space Telescope, we want it to be known that we stand in solidarity with the rest of Space Science. In a climate of deep budget cuts, we believe the U.S. should not cede its role in "big science" projects, but also believe that, if cuts must be made, that they they are distributed thinly across the NASA directorates, reducing any disproportionate burden on singular projects.

In sum, we believe NASA should be properly funded, not just for the sake of science and understanding, but for the sake of the U.S. economy. Scientists around the world should stand with each other on thisscience should have science's backand should not let these circumstances divide us. The public should demand this and our government should listen. The most important time for humanity to seize its destiny is now and it would be terribly tragic to slow down at this critical juncture.

For more news on the James Webb Space Telescope, please check out this list of latest accomplishments. Also, MOST DEFINITELY read this article by Ross Anderson, who eloquently explains how and why the James Webb Space Telescope is so important to the future of humanity and our understanding of the universe.

Learn how cuts to the U.S. budget will threaten NASA space missions, in this SPACE.com infographic.
Source: SPACE.com: All about our solar system, outer space and exploration

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