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Congress members urge NASA to spare planetary science funding

April 19, 2013|By Eryn Brown | This post has been updated. See below for details.
  • Jupiter's moon, Europa. Planetary cientists hope to explore the icy moon some day, but budget cuts could upend their efforts.
Jupiter's moon, Europa. Planetary cientists hope to explore the… (Jet Propulsion Laboratory )

Don't cut planetary science funding, members of Congress urged NASA on Friday.

In a letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), urged the space agency to maintain funding levels for missions to Mars and the outer planets that were allocated by Congress this spring -- and not to react to budget pressures by making disproportionate cuts to the science budget.

"While we fully understand that the funding levels ... are subject to change to reflect across-the-board and sequester cuts, we expect that the balance among programs will remain consistent with the structure directed by Congress," they wrote.

The legislators were joined by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas).

NASA is soon expected to detail how it will move money around to make up for shortfalls related to sequestration -- the automatic federal budget cuts that went into effect earlier this year.  Schiff, whose district includes the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada-Flintridge, told The Times that his office was hearing that science funding was poised to take a hit in the space agency's new operating plan.

"We're hearing disturbing sounds that they're going to raid planetary science, and seriously degrade Mars missions -- even though sample return is the highest priority of the decadal survey" -- the official plan for scientists in the field, he said.

"It's not as if we didn't just tell them, 'That's not what we want,'" he added. "They're not listening." 

The Obama administration had proposed cutting planetary science in its 2013 budget, setting off alarm bells among academics and space exploration advocates.  Congress reinstated some of the funds in its budget bill.  Schiff said he worried that removing funding now from ongoing, high-priority science projects -- or delaying funding -- would make it hard for places like JPL to keep experienced staff for future missions.

"We lose the people who have the ability to land on the Martian surface," he said.  "It's a unique skill set.  We're the only people who can do this.  We don't want to be led on by NASA setting up the mission and then setting it up to fail."

Congress will have to approve any operating plan NASA puts forward, Schiff noted. "We're telling them to get it right the first time," he said.

[UPDATED, Friday, April 19, 2:55 p.m.:  The revised operating plan for NASA’s planetary science activities will be submitted to Congress no later than May 10, said NASA Science Mission Directorate senior public affairs officer Dwayne C. Brown — who added that details would not be available until Congress approves the plan. 

“However,” he said, “despite the fiscal realities of our time, the fiscal year 2013 budget ensures that the United States will remain the world's leader in planetary space exploration.” Brown noted that funding would continue for Mars missions in 2016 and 2020 and for ongoing efforts to study the outer solar system. The budget also includes money for new projects to study an asteroid and the moon, he said.]

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