NASA budget controversy 2012 — the results

Posted by Karri Ferron
on Monday, November 21, 2011

For months now, professional scientists and astronomy enthusiasts alike have awaited the result of congressional negotiations over NASA’s 2012 fiscal year budget. The big question: Would the troubled James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the space agency’s replacement for Hubble, survive the cut after major overspending? Would preparations for JWST end up stealing money from other science programs should Congress continue its funds?

The James Webb Space Telescope will continue to receive funding for its planned 2018 launch, but at the cost of some other science programs. // Illustration by NASA
Over the summer, Congress was divided: The Senate wanted to keep it, but the House wanted to give it the axe, which caused quite the stir in the astronomy community. When President Obama signed the final budgetary measure into law Friday, JWST’s fate was (temporarily) sealed: It will survive.

According to the bill, NASA will get $17.8 billion in 2012, which is $684 million below the agency’s 2011 funding and $924 million less than what the White House had requested, with specifications as followed:

- Manned space exploration will receive $3.8 billion, down $30 million from last year. This includes NASA’s recently announced Space Launch System (SLS), which is budgeted for $1.8 billion, and its Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, which receives $1.2 billion.

- Congress budgeted $4.2 billion for space operations, some $1.3 billion less than last year (partly due to the end of the Space Shuttle Program).  The loser in this category is NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program, which funds private-enterprise initiatives for space exploration, such as Space X. This program will get less than half of the $850 million the president had wanted — only $406 million.

- Science programs, including JWST, are budgeted for $5.1 billion, up $155 million from last year. Of this, $529.6 million will go to JWST ($156 million more than the White House requested), $1.77 billion to Earth science ($30 million less than requested), $1.5 billion to planetary science ($40 million less than requested), and $672 million to astrophysics ($10.7 million less than requested). The overview of the bill includes some explicit language: “The agreement accommodates cost growth in the James Webb Space Telescope by making commensurate reductions in other programs, and institutes several new oversight measurements for JWST’s continuing development.”

So, what does this mean? First, Congress seems to be more concerned with government manned space programs than it is with cooperating with private companies (not a great plan, in my opinion). And although JWST survives, it will be under close watch going forward (good) and will cause delays in some other science programs in order to launch by 2018 (bad).

What are your thoughts on the results of the 2012 budget measure? Do you think Congress made good or bad decisions? Will we go through another budget controversy in another year? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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