What’s the first thing you think of when someone says NASA? Maybe the Apollo missions, maybe the ISS, maybe the Challenger disaster. Whatever it is, I bet one thing no one thinks of anymore is piles and piles of money. NASA is perennially underfunded to the extent that its spokespeople have said its meager budget puts people at risk for asteroid hits, may jeopardize future Mars missions, and generally spells nothing good for the future of America’s space program. So far, 2014 has been a decent year for the space agency, though, with the successful test flight of the Orion spacecraft and the renewal of seven planetary missions. But 2014—and beyond—just got a whole lot better. When the House of Representatives passed the “CRomnibus” bill last week, thankfully averting another government shutdown, it actually gave NASA more than it asked for, raising the agency’s budget by 2% for next year.
The Senate passed the bill over the weekend, and now all President Obama has to do is sign it. Considering that the bill allocates $550 million more for NASA than Obama requested for 2015 (and that a bunch of other hitches were ironed out over the past week), there’s no reason to think he won’t . What that means is NASA is poised to receive just over $18 billion total next year, which is its highest level of funding in a while—$364 million more than they received last year.
One major winner is the planetary sciences division, which focuses on learning about the other celestial bodies in our solar system in an attempt to answer some big questions, such as how the solar system formed and how life began. Planetary science and astrobiology are perhaps some of the most alluring components of NASA’s work—everyone wants to know how we got here, and whether there’s life elsewhere. But it’s also one of the most frustrating, because there’s so much we don’t know. It’s one of the most theoretical and speculative fields in astronomy, but the only way to change that is by funding exploration. Under the new bill, planetary sciences will receive $1.44 billion, to be divvied up between a bunch of different programs, like the Mars 2020 rover, the Opportunity rover, and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. A proposed mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, thought by many to be the best chance to discover life outside of Earth, will specifically receive $118 million for initial concept planning.
The Space Launch System rocket and the Orion crew capsule will together receive $2.9 billion, so the government seems to be putting its money where its mouth is with regards to manned deep space explorations. The astrophysics division also got a nice chunk, $685 million, which, among other things, will keep the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy running. Inevitably, some programs didn’t receive the funding they wanted, such as the Space Technology Development division, but there’s no question that on the whole, NASA comes out way ahead this time. The cynic in me worries about what that will mean down the road (hey, we gave you what you wanted back in 2015, remember?), but if NASA can also show results, I don’t think anyone will doubt that the investment is worth it.