Future Tense

How Federal Budget Cuts Will Affect Space Exploration, Drones, and DARPA

US space shuttle Atlantis’s crew (L-R) Pilot Doug Hurley, Sandy Magnus, Commander Chris Ferguson and Rex Walheim on June 23, 2011 as they leave the Operations and Checkout building at Kennedy Space Center, Florida for launch pad 39-A during a practice countdown. Atlantis’ upcoming STS-135 mission will signal the end to NASA’s most successful and longest running space program. AFP PHOTO/Bruce Weaver (Photo credit should read BRUCE WEAVER/AFP/Getty Images)

Photo by BRUCE WEAVER/AFP/Getty Images

This week, the Obama White House released the proposed budget for fiscal year 2013. The plan would significantly cut military spending, but contains $140.8 billion for research and development, with a 5 percent bump in non-military technology funding. Here’s how some big tech projects will fare.

Obama allocates $17.7 billion for NASA as a whole, which is just slightly down from this year’s figure. Phil Plait notes on IO9, for NASA, “the good news is tepid, and the bad news is, well, pretty damn bad.” If the budget passes as-is, funds for planetary exploration would be been cut to $1.2 billion from a current $1.5 billion. Mars exploration alone faces a 38.5 percent reduction. “If approved, the near-term impact would be to force NASA to back out of a 2008 agreement with the European Space Agency to share the costs of two ambitious Mars missions known as ExoMars, which called for launch of an orbiter in 2016 and two rovers in 2018,” says William Harwood on CNET.


On the bright side, funding for the commercial space program would leap from $406 million to $830 million.

Wireless Broadband
Mashable notes,“$10 billion will be made available for a nationwide wireless broadband network and “spectrum innovation.”

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency dodges a (high-tech) bullet. As Smart Planet points out, it loses a very modest $1.4 million from its nearly $3 billion budget. But some individual projects are losing out: “Machine intelligence” is losing funding, while an unnamed “classified” project is being cut down to $3 million from $107 million. (Oh, to know what is going on with that endeavor.) A new $50 million priority for DARPA is hypersonics, which would allow for travel at more than five times the speed of sound. A plane that takes off and lands vertically and a “counter-laser technologies program” also receive more funds, according to Aviation Week.


Clean Energy
Obama hopes for $325 million  to go to DARPA’s Department of Energy cousin, E-ARPA.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
The Pentagon budget released a couple of weeks ago contains some good news, some bad for UAVs, better known as drones. The Global Hawk surveillance drone from Northrop Grunman, which was designed to fly at 60,000 feet, has been canceled. But other cuts to the military—including a plan to reduced the number of troops by as many as 100,000—means that there will be more reliance on drones than ever before. In addition to surveillance and fighter UAVs, “sea-based unmanned systems” will be funded, too. For one thing, as Marketplace points out, drones are cheaper to build than fighter planes.