Congress wants to cut; President Obama wants to spend, right? Not when it comes to NASA.
Although Obama’s budget, released on Monday, almost exactly matches last year’s congressional appropriations, don’t expect NASA supporters in Congress to be pleased.
The White House asks for $17.7 billion for the space agency. That’s only a $59 million drop from the budget that Congress approved for NASA last year, but for Obama, it represents a major reality check. It’s a 5 percent cut compared to the $18.7 billion the president envisioned when he submitted his budget a year ago.
All in all, however, this budget proposal will likely change little in the broad debate over NASA’s future after the space-shuttle program ended last year.
“While making difficult choices, the budget builds on our existing space infrastructure, continues efforts to streamline agency operations, and preserves innovation capabilities and technologies to sustain American leadership in space,” the budget document said.
In 2012, Obama aimed to match NASA’s 2010 budget. But fiscal realities have brought some of the agency’s most ambitious plans back to earth. In 2010 Obama scuttled a Bush-era plan to return to the moon and called for more privatization, as well as missions to an asteroid and Mars. Additional funding for those plans, however, was dropped from last year’s budget, and this year’s proposals include further cuts.
Some departments would suffer more cutbacks than others. The budget for NASA’s planetary-science division would be reduced by 20 percent from $1.5 billion to $1.2 billion. The cuts would end a joint NASA program with the European Space Agency to send probes to Mars.
The budget continues funding programs to land a human on an asteroid in the next decade; it also retains a call for more private-sector investment.
Criticism of the president's plans largely reflects overall disenchantment by those who want to see a more aggressive space program, rather than specific concern over such relatively modest cuts.
Congress is not expected to agree on a budget any time soon, and Obama’s proposals will likely serve as only a starting point for a protracted debate. NASA has often found itself squeezed between fondness for its awe-inspiring programs and the budget crunch here on earth.
When Republican presidental candidate Newt Gingrich proposed returning to the moon, his rivals for the GOP presidential nomination derided the plan as unrealistic.
And Congress is similarly split. Last year, the House Appropriations Committee proposed up to $578 million in cuts from NASA, but members of Congress from states with NASA facilities has already voiced their opposition to Obama’s plans.
“I oppose these ill-considered cuts, and I will do everything in my power to restore the Mars budget and to ensure American leadership in space exploration,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a House Appropriations Committee member whose district is home to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Space.com after a meeting with NASA Director Charles Bolden last week.
And on the other side of the aisle, Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, told The Washington Post that Obama’s proposals “absolutely will not fly.”