When Congress puts Nasa on hold, planets don't wait

This Nasa image shows the Curiosity Mars rover collecting a sample. Budget uncertainties may endanger such vital equipment.
This Nasa image shows the Curiosity Mars rover collecting a sample. Budget uncertainties may endanger such vital equipment.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The United States asks the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) to do an extraordinary amount with very little money. Explore Mars, document climate change, stop doomsday asteroids, find life on Europa - all for less than half of 1 per cent of the federal budget. But budget uncertainties on Capitol Hill, including delays in federal appropriations legislation and temporary government shutdowns, measurably harm the American space programme.

Even the threat of a shutdown can have a far-reaching impact on scientific projects, often in unexpected ways.

"I keep a standing Google News alert for 'Nasa Budget', 'Federal Budget' and 'Government Shutdown,' " says Mr Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator of Nasa's Osiris-REx mission, in which a spacecraft will fly to an asteroid, study it, grab a piece of it, and then fly back to Earth.

Osiris-REx is set to launch next year, but the federal shutdown in 2013 caused a major schedule slip in the development of a key instrument on the spacecraft, costing taxpayers US$1.7 million (S$2.4 million).

Erratic funding streams add an unstable element to a process where instability means the loss of irreplaceable hardware and the interruption of research.

According to Mr Eric Smith, the programme director of the James Webb Space Telescope, Nasa programmes develop contingency plans for how hardware can be placed into a safe configuration should, for example, the order for a shutdown be given. It was a hard-learned lesson.

He said: "In 2013, some of our science instruments, including ones from our foreign partners, were in a cryogenic vacuum when the shutdown order came. We were permitted to keep the hardware safe in a cold vacuum state, but could not continue testing."

As a result, the programme was able to make up for it, but at a cost.

Such delays are not trivial events at Nasa; everything there is tested, first in isolation and then in aggregate, each part having to prove itself to engineering specifications before being added to a larger rocket or spacecraft, where more tests are conducted to make sure everything works well together.

Nasa flourishes when it is given a clear goal and the long-term support to make it happen.

Erratic funding streams add an unstable element to a process where instability means the loss of irreplaceable hardware and the interruption of research.

Two years ago, Nasa's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (Maven) spacecraft, a US$671 million mission to study the composition of the Martian upper atmosphere, sat at Kennedy Space Center ready to go to space, but with no one there to push the button. Congress and the Obama administration were competing to see who would blink first, but the planets were not waiting.

If Maven did not lift off before the close of its launch window, the position of Mars relative to Earth would force a launch delay of 26 months. This would have had repercussions for Mars missions subsequent to Maven, as well as for scientists waiting data for study and analysis.

The launch was saved at the last minute only because of a technicality. The Antideficiency Act, a century-old law that prohibits the federal government from spending money before appropriation (or in excess of it), is the reason that the government shuts down when Congress fails to pass an appropriations Bill. Its language is unambiguous, though it does provide an exception for "emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property".

Maven, though ostensibly designed to study the atmosphere of Mars, also contains a powerful telecommunications relay. Nasa asserted that the active Mars rovers, Curiosity and Opportunity, would be endangered without Maven to augment the ageing communications systems on satellites already orbiting Mars.

The government fiscal year begins on Oct 1. To avoid another shutdown this year, Congress will most likely pass continuing resolutions to keep things running while differences are hashed out. Although such stop-gap measures authorise spending at current levels, Nasa's funding is capped at whichever budget is lower - the current one, or the president's proposed budget.

Congress has been good to Nasa in recent years, at least with respect to planetary exploration, ultimately restoring most of the funding cuts proposed annually by the White House.

But even a continuing resolution will be a problem for the planetary science division, which is responsible for Osiris-REx, the rovers on Mars and the New Horizons spacecraft, which is still sending back data from its mission to Pluto.

Based on the proposed budget, funding for the division will immediately drop by approximately US$76 million until an actual budget is passed. Something will have to be shut down or postponed.

In an annual report last year, Mr Paul K. Martin, the inspector general of Nasa, said that "fiscal uncertainties" compounded the problem of the agency's meeting its already underfunded goals, and "the principal challenge facing Nasa leaders in 2015 will be to effectively manage the agency's varied programmes in an uncertain budget environment".

The 2013 annual report said the same thing. So did the 2012 report.

If the agency is forced to hobble into 2016 on a continuing resolution, haunted by continued budget uncertainties, it is easy to guess what the inspector general's next report will say. Nasa deserves better than this.


  • The writer is writing a book about the scientists who build spacecraft to explore the outer planets.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 13, 2015, with the headline 'When Congress puts Nasa on hold, planets don't wait'. Print Edition | Subscribe