Alien worlds and the search for extraterrestrial life recently took center stage on Capitol Hill, a break from standard political fare in Washington D.C. (Related: "Future of Spaceflight.")
"Finding other sentient life in the universe would be the most significant discovery in human history," began Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas who's chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, at the May 21 astrobiology hearing.
"The unknown and unexplored areas of space spark human curiosity," he went on, applauding recent discoveries such as the most Earth-like world orbiting a nearby star discovered so far by NASA's Kepler Space Telescope.
But the reality is that while the stars and planets beckon, a budget battle is brewing over NASA, the $17.6-billion civilian space agency. Cuts threaten spacecraft and telescopes, even as NASA struggles to clarify its mission in the post-space shuttle era. (Related: "Future of Spaceflight.")
Since the end of the Apollo missions in 1973, the space agency's budget has steadily declined from 1.35 percent of federal spending to less than 0.6 percent. A long-running annual drop in inflation-adjusted funds took a sharp downward turn in the past two years, as budget cuts, including mandatory ones ordered by Congress, trimmed almost a billion dollars from 2012 to 2013. The 2014 budget recovered some, but not all, of that cut.
In addition, a fundamental debate is under way over the future exploration aims of NASA. The Obama Administration favors "stepping stone" plans leading to an asteroid visit in the next decade; congressional representatives call for a return to the moon.
A National Research Council report released in late 2012 called NASA's strategic plan to explore asteroids "vague," adding that the agency's explanations did not explain "why it is worthy of taxpayer investment."
The debate over funding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI)—which was barred from receiving federal dollars in a 1993 congressional vote that scrubbed its ten-million-dollar yearly operating cost—mirrors, in microcosm, the larger debate about paying for space science. Already squeezed by decades of straitened funding, a variety of NASA missions, ranging from an infrared space telescope to a 747-mounted observatory, now face cancellation.
When NASA released its 2015 budget proposal in March, it dropped a bombshell on the astronomical community. The proposal cut funding for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a 747 jetliner equipped with a 2.5-meter (8.2-foot) telescope that can make observations above most of our atmosphere's infrared-absorbing water vapor.
Unless NASA finds a new partner to take over its share of SOFIA's operating costs, about $85 million a year, the proposed budget would force the agency to mothball the observatory—even though it began routine operations earlier this year.
NASA administrator Charles Bolden said SOFIA was a victim of limited budgets that had led the agency to prioritize other programs, such as the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and a 2020 Mars rover mission.
"It turned out that we had to make very difficult choices about where we go with astrophysics and planetary science and Earth science, and SOFIA happened to be what fell off the plate this time," he said shortly after the budget proposal came out.
The space agency is also facing some difficult choices about what ongoing space missions it can afford to keep running. Every two years NASA convenes panels, known as senior reviews, to examine the performance of missions that have exceeded their original lifetimes. The reviews are designed to ensure that the science these missions produce is worth the continuing expense, but it's rare for such reviews to recommend ending a mission before the spacecraft can simply no longer operate.
This year, though, is different.
This month the senior review panel charged with reviewing NASA's astrophysics programs recommended that, in the absence of additional funding, the Spitzer Space Telescope be shut down. This infrared telescope, launched in 2003, costs NASA about $15 million a year to operate. Although the spacecraft is in good health and producing good science, the panel concluded that there wasn't enough funding to keep it running without jeopardizing other astronomy missions.
The senior review panel (SRP) also included a warning in its report. "The operation of the nation's space-borne observatories is so severely impacted by the current funding climate in Washington that the SRP feels that American preeminence in the study of the universe from space is threatened to the point of irreparable damage if additional funds cannot be found to fill the projected funding gaps," it stated, a comment printed in bold in the report.
NASA's planetary science missions are undergoing their own senior review, to be completed by summer. Some scientists fear current budgets could force NASA to decide which of two large missions, the Curiosity Mars rover and Cassini Saturn orbiter, it can afford to keep operating. Plans are already under way to end the Cassini spacecraft's mission in 2017, by sending it plummeting into Saturn's atmosphere.
Jim Green, head of NASA's planetary science division, said at a recent science meeting that NASA can afford to keep operating all its existing planetary missions, provided it receives an additional $35 million contained in a supplemental budget request.
The space agency lost a lot of goodwill in 2011 with news that the budget of the Hubble Space Telescope's successor, the JWST, had ballooned to more than eight billion dollars, up from the previous estimate of five billion. Paying for the cost overruns of the telescope, scheduled for launch in 2018, has eaten into the agency's already thin funds.
Lost in Space
"Astrobiology is a serious subject studied by serious scientists around the world," declared Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican, as he opened the May 21 hearing on "Astrobiology and the Search for Life in the Universe."
At the hour-long hearing Smith and a few other committee members gave a friendly reception to two witnesses, Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute and Dan Werthimer of the University of California, Berkeley. The scientists described current and future efforts to scan the skies for signals produced by alien civilizations.
Shostak in particular was optimistic about the prospects of finding a signal in the relatively near future, thanks to advances in computer technology that improve the processing of radio signals.
"You have to look at a few million star systems to have a reasonable chance for success," he said. "Given the predictable advancements in technology, to look at a few million star systems is something that can be done in two dozen years, given the funding to do it."
Funding, though, is likely a bigger challenge than technology. SETI programs today are run on a shoestring, relying entirely on private funding. NASA's last SETI program, the High Resolution Microwave Survey (HRMS), was killed in 1993 by congressional members who deemed the program, which cost about ten million dollars a year, wasteful.
Congress to the Rescue?
Still, there may be relief for NASA, at least in the near term.
This week the House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on a fiscal 2015 spending bill that would provide NASA with $17.9 billion, an increase of $435 million over the administration's request. NASA's astrophysics program would get a 12 percent increase over the White House's proposal, and planetary science would get a 13 percent boost.
The bill also addresses clashes for funding in other NASA programs.
The House bill adds $270 million to the president's proposal for the Orion capsule and the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket, which are being developed to carry out NASA's future deep-space missions even though it's unclear what specific missions they'll fly beyond initial test flights in 2017 and 2021. However, the bill cuts by nearly 10 percent funding for NASA's Commercial Crew program, which supports private development of spacecraft to transport astronauts to the International Space Station.
The House's budget would also set aside $100 million for a proposed mission to Jupiter's icy moon Europa that would launch in the early 2020s. By comparison, NASA requested just $15 million for the mission in its proposed budget, the first time the agency had specifically requested funding for the mission, although Congress provided some funding for it in 2013 and 2014.
"With this funding increase, we will be able to keep Mars 2020 on track and begin an exciting new mission to Europa, two of the science community's highest priorities," said Representative Adam Schiff, a Democratic member of the House Appropriations Committee whose California district includes NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
That funding increase, though, will have to make it through the House this week and later the Senate, which is expected to begin work on its version of a 2015 spending bill next week.
The outcome of those legislative efforts will have little effect on SETI, but they might give scientists some hope of finding support for more space science inside the Beltway.
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