Fiscal Squeeze Could Freeze NASA Budget for Five Years

NASA officials put on happy faces on February 14 to discuss their new budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2012, but it wasn’t exactly cheerful news. President Barack Obama proposed freezing NASA’s budget at the 2010 level, and called for a five-year freeze on new spending for the space agency. This would put NASA at $18.7 billion annually through fiscal 2016. Gone is the 1.6-percent increase NASA had sought for fiscal 2011, which ends in September, as well as the promised steady increases of an extra $6 billion over five years. But, truth be told, no one knows for sure what level NASA will be funded during this tight financial time, and the conservatives in Congress have talked about not just freezing the budgets of agencies like NASA, but reducing them.

“This budget requires us to live within our means so we can invest in our future,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. “It maintains our commitment to human spaceflight and provides for strong programs to continue the outstanding science, aeronautics research and education needed to win the future.”

“These are familiar numbers for those of you familiar with NASA budget,” said NASA’s Chief Financial Officer Elizabeth Robinson. “It’s the numbers we are currently living with in the Continuing Resolution.”

Since Congress failed to agree on spending levels for the Federal government for 2011 preceding last November’s mid-term election, it was decided to maintain 2010 levels with the Continuing Resolution.

As with every NASA budget proposal, some people were seemingly happy with the numbers and prospects, while others have already begun thinking of how the proposal should be changed.

NASA touted the new budget request for fiscal year 2012 as supporting “a reinvigorated path of innovation, technological development and scientific discovery,” and that it “supports all elements of NASA’s 2010 Authorization Act, which was passed by a strong bipartisan majority of Congress and signed into law by President Obama.”

Bolden said at a press conference that the new budget represents a “leaner, more responsible NASA.”

“We are going to live within our means,” he said, by slowing hiring, and aligning their work-force numbers and skills with the mission requirements. “This will help us to be better stewards, make better use of our infrastructure and meet the President’s clean energy goals, while encouraging us to perform at an even higher level and do the big things you all expect of us,” Bolden said.

The new budget proposal includes $4.3 billion for the Space Shuttle and International Space Station programs, $2.9 billion for the development of a heavy launcher and the Orion capsule, $5 billion for science, $3.9 billion for future exploration systems and $569 million for aeronautics research.

There were reductions to Earth science and exploration robotics, and the development of heavy lift will certainly be delayed as that portion of the budget will stay at 2010 levels instead of being made a priority.
NASA’s said the science budget supports new missions and continued operations of the many observatories studying Earth and space. The agency will continue work on a wide range of astrophysics, heliophysics and Earth science missions. Robinson noted that if the astrophysics budget look small it is because funds for the James Webb Space Telescope have been shifted out of that area, as JWST will be reporting directly to Ed Weiler, the Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate, because of the huge cost overruns the mission has had.

Funding for the additional shuttle flight, STS-135, is still uncertain. NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Operations, Bill Gerstenmaier said that if NASA’s budget stays at the 2010 levels, they should be able to afford to fly STS-135. “But if we get cuts, we might not be able to fly STS-135. There is some uncertainty,” he said.

Commercial spaceflight would actually receive more money under the proposed budget. $850 million would be earmarked for the development of private spacecraft, while the bill proposed for FY 2011 only provided $500 million.

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation praised the new budget proposal. “In this constrained fiscal environment, commercial spaceflight is more important than ever,” said CSF President Bretton Alexander. “Leveraging private investment is the only way NASA can make its dollars go farther in these times of belt-tightening.”

NASA feels they can support multiple milestone-based competitors for Commercial Crew Development program.

“With the extension of space station to at least 2020, making commercial crew successful is a high priority to close the gap,” said Douglas Cooke, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems. “The budget numbers have been increased to bring these on in a meaningful timeframe.”

But there were several voices of dissension about the new budget.

“Where’s the innovation?” asked Bill Nye, Executive Director of the Planetary Society. “How can NASA innovate when Congress insists on building a new heavy lift rocket based on old designs? Science has been flat-lined. Planetary Science has been cut. Earth science missions have been delayed – again. Missions to the outer planets won’t get off the ground when they’re only ‘studies.’ Mr. Bolden talked about ‘hard choices,’ but what can he do when NASA has not been given a real budget for this fiscal year? The hard choices are yet to be made.”

Sen. Bill Nelson from Florida, who helped write the NASA authorization bill (which was signed but never put into place), expressed disappointment in the new budget proposal. “In this time of necessary budget cuts, NASA does well compared to most other agencies. But the president’s budget does not follow the bi-partisan NASA law Congress passed late last year. The Congress will assert its priorities in the next six month.”

“Plain and simple – this budget is a non-starter,” said Texas Representative Pete Olson. “President Obama has once again marginalized America’s preeminence in human space flight, as well as the American taxpayer, for the benefit his climate research programs. This budget ignores the human space flight priorities outlined by Congress last year. We fought this battle last year and won, and I believe we will do so again.”

Let the battle – and the discussions – begin.

Here’s a link to NASA’s budget and all sorts of supporting material.

18 Replies to “Fiscal Squeeze Could Freeze NASA Budget for Five Years”

  1. There’s a lot going on within the relatively stable budget ceiling and it’s mostly good news.

    Spending is up on Science, Exploration, Aeronautics and Cross Agency Support paid for by transferring ~$2,000m from Operations which seems to have been freed up by pushing the Shuttles further off the books.

    Spending is also up on supporting new and potential fixed-cost commercial partnerships by $850m, while ~$1,000m is trimmed from the Heavy Lift Vehicle (HLV) project. There is an authorization bill for the HLV to be built by 2016, but NASA has publicly stated no-can-do and that they require either more time or more money (source Doug Cooke NASA Associate Administrator). Delays to the HLV aren’t so bad since …
    1) there are no funded end-use missions waiting on the HLV’s completion,
    2) it looks increasing likely that the DH4 and/or AH5 will become man-rated in the meantime even though they would both be out performed by a man-rated F9H and
    3) the more years the HLV can be delayed, the less likely it is to be built mostly from recycled 1970s Shuttle technology.
    Looks like cold turkey instead of pork for Senator Nelson D-FL who authored the bill.

    One budget critic, Rep. Pete Olson, wants NASA to stop spending money on climate science. No prizes for guessing Olson is from the oil producing state of Texas.

    During the last budget, these pages where full of fire and vitriol following the cancellation of Constellation. It should be even clearer now that if whoever won the 2008 White House complete with wrecked economy hadn’t of pulled the plug on Constellation back then, the 112th Congress would definitely be canceling Constellation now.

    NASA still seems to be finding ways to assert it’s priorities even in constrained times and surrounded by pork seeking politicians, so good work Charles Bolden an team. Well done on the budget proposal.

  2. For once, finally a sensible decision has been made to strengthen the economy!
    Really. You can’t spend money you don’t have, just like any individual’s home budget.

    If the US wants to return to a bold space plan, it should first fix the recent rise in homelessness and cities swelling with the downtrodden, and also provide some kind of health reform for the sick who are unable to afford insurance. The complain so often stated here (and usually levelled against my comments on this issue), in that, we don’t want to hear about the negatives about America. [I.e. Like saying la-la-la, with headphones.] Just hiding from the undeniable fact that its economy is in in a mess and almost completely on its knees; would be both foolish and naive. Be so grateful that your Federal Government hasn’t cut the program to zero. Also, from the steadfastness of the American people, this crisis will soon pass, and no doubt from the resolve the space program will rise again — it just won’t be for a few more years, though.

    1. This will not have that effect. For one the Pentagon budget actually expands. This also reduces investments in the nation. The budget is killing off research and infrastructure programs. In effect the US of A is a nation which can’t invest in itself. Also programs which assist people on the lower tiers of the economic system are gutted, so there is no plan here to deal with that issue.

      Ultimately there are three things which are imaginary and have no actual reality. These are God, country and money. They exist to the extent we believe they exist. Notice how we keep getting the same hyped statements about them in an endless loop. A huge industry exists to generate propaganda of sorts (advertising or evangelism included) in order to keep the public pacified and in line.

      This nation is heading for a day when the whole system will have to be rebooted. The economy and functionality of this nation is becoming so broken down that it will be an analogue of a Windows freeze up.


  3. Cuts obviously need to be made within the national budget, but why are we so concerned cutting the budget of a service that costs less than 1% of the budget?

    I am under the impression that NASA is a government agency that actually shows a strong return in the investment of taxpayers dollars and i think it would be a shame if their budget was cut simply becaue cuts are being made across the board.

  4. Wow, I actually disagree with B.Crumb for once! (Or I, for lack of smileys, missed his sarcasm)

    It’s like Myer’s said on Pharyngula the other day: “They are under pressure to cut spending, any spending, but they refuse to touch anything that might cause immediate pain to the electorate…so instead, anything in the budget that affects future voters is going to get the axe.”

    It’s because there’s always the tendency to cut programs that are aimed at progress in the future, that creates or exacerbate many of these problems. Investing in education and science pays off, just not instantly. This relentless drive for instant gratification is hurtful to a future oriented and sustainable society.

    And the whole mantra about “We have to save money to help the economy recover.” SURE. But how will, cutting budgets of research organisations create jobs? How about the industries that build instruments for researchers etc? Those are jobs as well, I don’t think it’s reasonable to discriminate between high-tech jobs for highly qualified university graduates and creating jobs to help the homeless get a home.

    1. Firstly, I never thought I’d see the day when someone would miss my trait of sarcasm to get the point across. (Gotta be a first!)
      However, I’m am happy in the thought that you so kindly disagree,

  5. Even more disturbing is the $2.4billion cut to NSF and NIH. Pentagon spending increases by about 5%. This budget is pretty much standard fair, when the chips go down things like education and entitlements get the chop.


  6. Joseph Stiglitz:

    “There has been, in my mind, a little bit too much emphasis on the deficit and less emphasis on what is being done with the money. So for instance, if we are borrowing money to invest in infrastructure, technology, education, then that is leading our country to be more productive. The increases in income, in principle, should be able to pay the interest and pay back the debt that we borrowed.

    On the other hand, if we borrow money to fight a war in Iraq, a war that’s just pouring money down a drain, then obviously we’re going to be a weaker country, because we borrowed money and there’s not going to be anything to show for it. …”

  7. There are many good comments in this section on this topic. I like the previous comment the best. Money spent on education, infrastructure, and science are investments that pay back the most for the dollars spent. This has always been proven true and will never change.
    Dollars spent on entitlements will help spare some of our bright minds of the future in broken families from despair and failure but that is of no use if there is nothing for them to do. Modern policies have emphasized giving the poor a handout for their vote (courtesy of everyone who lives productive lives) rather than building things that actually make their lives and everyone else’s better. The notion if noble (aside from the reality of buying votes) but the execution is terrible.The more dependent we allow our people to become the more handouts they will require and then expect.
    If we want to make the lives of the poor and lower income Americans better than we need to get back to respecting the fact the it is a nation first and a member of the world community second. Rebuild the skilled industries that were allowed to bleed overseas and over borders that allowed the wealthiest to profit at the expense of our skilled workers here. Re-institute unions in these and other work places to permit collective bargaining for said workers. Raise the quality standards for products by law in order to protect our products and workers from cheaper and inferior foreign products. (anyone want to buy some surplus sulphur containing drywall made in China?) Require by law those super-rich who are hoarding or exporting their weath rather than investing it to grow their companies to be heavily taxed in order to put that wealth back into economic circulation. (i.e. the only tax shelter they should be allowed to have is their corporation on U.S. soil.)
    Somehow our politicians were hoodwinked by the notion of a global economy into leaving all of their senses and policies behind that took this nation out of third world status a century ago. When is the last time we recorded a trade surplus? Why does nobody who is in charge seem to have a problem with that? It seems that we have to fall back to that status before we might re-learn our old lessons. Right now the nation’s interior is a shell of it’s former glory. Sadly, it looks like this nation still has far to fall before reality sets in.

  8. i agree with what you wrote but the other side will claim that what you suggest is “socailism”; partly due to not really knowing the true meaning of the word.

  9. As said before, I think the two things with the biggest payoff is education and science. Investment in these yields a higher return on investment than anything else. I wonder why it’s so hard to get funding for these things. Is it because people are too short-sighted?

    As far as NASA, my personal opinion is that they should focus mainly on doing science, and let the commercial world take over in the areas of space exploration and aeronautics.

  10. The answer is simple Jim, rampant greed, not shortsightedness. In case you haven’t noticed, corporations are running America; specifically oil, banks, and insurance firms. For them, investment in education and science doesn’t drive the obscene profits they desire. If the conservatives want to define what Greg proposes in his comments Socialism, then paint me a Socialist.

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