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.