The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Falcon 9 launch
Commercial crew development, which includes companies like SpaceX and its Falcon 9 rockat and Dragon spacecraft, will get less than half the funding the administration requested for fiscal year 2012. (credit: Chris Thompson/SpaceX)

The ongoing certainty of budget uncertainty

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It says something about the dysfunctional state of American politics that a spending bill nearly seven weeks overdue is lauded as a model of efficiency and expediency. That was the case last week when Congress finalized a spending bill that included funding for a number of government agencies, including NASA, about a month and a half after the 2012 fiscal year (FY) started. That was considerably faster than FY2011, when the process dragged on through a series of stopgap funding bills and the threat of a government shutdown until a final bill passed in April, more than six months into the fiscal year. The political publication POLITICO called last week’s passage a “rare return to some semblance of regular order for the tattered appropriations process.”

The “minibus” bill—so named because it was a scaled-down version of past comprehensive “omnibus” appropriations bills—combined three separate appropriations bills, including Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS), the one that includes NASA. The minibus gave NASA $17.8 billion for 2012, nearly a billon dollars less than administration asked for, but still better than some options facing the agency. The passage of the bill provides some certainty to agency programs, from human spaceflight to space science, but keeps others in some shade of uncertainty—a limbo the agency itself could be facing in the next fiscal year.

Finalizing the budget

The final budget represented a compromise between separate House and Senate versions. The House version, approved by House appropriators in July but never taken up by the full House, would have given NASA only $16.8 billion in 2012, compared to the Senate’s version (passed by the Senate in September) that covered over $17.9 billion. All these versions, though, fell short of the administration’s original request of $18.7 billion, which itself—if one is seeking further evidence that this is an era of fiscal conservatism, if not outright austerity—was less than the $19.45 billion the administration projected for FY2012 back in its FY2011 budget proposal.

“I support the James Webb Space Telescope, but my support is not unconditional,” Mikulski said. “I am holding NASA and its contractors to their revised estimates. We cannot accept any further overruns.”

Two central elements of NASA’s future human spaceflight plans, the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), both end up with effectively full funding for 2012. SLS will get $1.86 billion and MPCV $1.2 billion, both slightly more than the administration’s request. The report accompanying the final bill reminded NASA of “its legal obligation to design the system from inception to the 130 ton standard”, a reference to the ultimate payload capacity of the vehicle, although the SLS will initially carry 70 tons to low Earth orbit.

Another winner in the final budget is the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), whose future appeared in doubt after House appropriators included no funding for the telescope in its bill. The final version gives JWST $530 million, the amount in the Senate’s version and more than the $374 million originally requested by the administration. Part of the extra money comes at the expense of other science programs, which saw their budgets cut by over $80 million from the original proposal.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), arguably the biggest advocate for JWST in Congress and also the most influential one, serving as chair of the Senate CJS appropriations subcommittee, hailed the funding for the telescope. “The James Webb Space Telescope will keep America in the lead for science and technology and inspire students to learn science, technology, engineering and math to become the scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs of tomorrow,” she said in a statement.

That funding, though, does come with some strings. The bill includes a provision setting a cost cap of $8 billion for JWST development—the current NASA estimate of its cost—with any increase above that level subjecting the program to a review and possible cancellation. The bill also tasks the Government Accountability Office (GAO) with providing a regular series of reports on JWST’s cost and technical progress. “I support the James Webb Space Telescope, but my support is not unconditional,” Mikulski said in her statement. “I am holding NASA and its contractors to their revised estimates. We cannot accept any further overruns.”

Other programs did not do as well. NASA’s Commercial Crew program, subject to major lobbying by industry and other commercial advocates in the weeks leading up to the completion of the minibus, got less than half the $850 million the administration requested. The House had proposed $312 million—the same amount as 2011—while the Senate offered $500 million, the level in last year’s authorization bill. The House-Senate conference committee ended up splitting the difference, giving the program $406 million, with $100 million of that set aside until “the completion of specified acquisitions milestones in the human exploration program.”

The funding Congress provided for commercial crew efforts “would delay initial capability to ISS to 2017, assuming additional funding is available in the outyears,” warned Bolden.

The report accompanying the bill also criticized NASA for being too optimistic in its planning for the commercial crew program, assuming funding levels far higher than what Congress has been willing to provide. “NASA is directed to work expeditiously to alter its management and acquisition strategy for the program as necessary to make the best use of available resources and to define the most cost effective path to the achievement of a commercial crew capability,” the report notes, suggesting as one possibility “an accelerated down-select process” for the companies currently involved in the program.

Another program that fell short of its requested funding is the Space Technology program. NASA had requested just over $1 billion for the program, but got only $575 million in the final bill, a compromise between the Senate’s $637 million and the House’s $375 million. The bill gives little guidance to NASA on how it should spend that money beyond a prioritization towards ongoing programs and activities in that program.

Uncertainty looking forward

The passage of the minibus—approved by both houses of Congress on Thursday and signed into law by President Obama on Friday—eliminates some near-term uncertainty about what NASA programs will be funded, and at what levels, especially compared to the extended limbo NASA (along with most other government agencies) was in last year. There are, however, some concerns for both this year and for FY2013, whose budget battle begins in just a few months.

One near-term uncertainty involves the Commercial Crew program. With funding less than half of what NASA requested, it’s likely that the program will be delayed, forcing NASA to purchase more Soyuz flights. “A reduction in funding from the President’s request could significantly impact the program’s schedule, risk posture, and acquisition strategy,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in prepared testimony for a hearing last Thursday by the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee on NASA’s human spaceflight plans. Funding the program at $500 million—more than what the final bill actual provides—“would delay initial capability to ISS to 2017, assuming additional funding is available in the outyears.”

It’s also unclear how NASA will proceed with the next phase of the program, known as the Integrated Design Phase. The agency released a draft request for proposals (RFP) in September for this phase of the program, with plans to release a full RFP in October. At a meeting last month of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA Headquarters, said they would likely continue those plans if funded at the Senate’s proposed level of $500 million, but “we’d most likely pull the draft RFP” and revisit their strategy if the agency got only the $312 million by the House. The actual funding—$406 million—puts the program’s future in something of a gray area between those two alternatives.

Even the futures of SLS and MPCV are uncertain given the flat funding profiles for those two programs projected for beyond 2012. “We have a difficult road ahead with SLS and MPCV, at the level of funding we are at right now,” Bolden admitted at Thursday’s hearing.

“I know they want more on the commercial side,” said Sen. Hutchison of the administration, “but not at the expense of the SLS system.”

That led to a debate among Bolden and Sens. Bill Nelson (D-FL), the chairman of the subcommittee, and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), the ranking member of the full committee, on funding priorities. Hutchison in particular believed NASA and the administration should be making SLS and MPCV higher priorities in future budget proposals. “The commercial crew system has never been shortchanged by NASA or your administration, but SLS has,” she said, referring to budget submissions by the administration. “Now that we’ve set this course, we’re going to stay on this course,” she said.

Nelson alluded to the “heartburn” NASA was experiencing with the shortfall in its requested commercial crew funding. “We were fortunate to get that up to $406 million,” he said. “That’s the area where we’re going to have to work on because we all agree that we want to stop paying, as quickly as we can, the Russians” for access to ISS. “That will be revisited as we carry on these discussions,” he promised.

Hutchison, though, pushed to make sure SLS was funded at what she considered an appropriate level in the FY2013 budget proposal, due out in February. “What I was trying to get him [Bolden] to acknowledge that we’re not going to shortchange the SLS in the ’13 budget,” she said, by increasing the program’s budget over previous projections. “I know they want more on the commercial side, but not at the expense of the SLS system.”

“We need to have the support of the president in the next [budget] submission,” she continued, “so we aren’t, in the appropriations committee, having to redirect funds.”

Adding to the uncertainty about 2013 is the increasing likelihood that automatic budget cuts will take place, slashing NASA and other discretionary spending. The August deal that increased the nation’s debt ceiling also established a so-called “supercommittee”—officially the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction—tasked with finding long-term cuts in the nation’s budget deficits. The supercommittee, six members each from the House and Senate, evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, has until Wednesday to vote on a plan that provides at least $1.2 trillion in debt relief though any combination of spending cuts and revenue increases. If it doesn’t, or if Congress fails to approve a plan by late December, automatic cuts, formally called “sequestration”, go into effect starting in FY2013.

As of early Monday, it was looking increasingly likely that the supercommittee was deadlocked, unable to come up with a plan. While the supercommittee has until Wednesday to vote on a plan, its effective deadline is Monday night, since any plan has to first go through the Congressional Budget Office for review. Barring a last-minute breakthrough, the supercommittee may have run out of time.

If the supercommittee’s failure does trigger sequestration, the cuts could be severe. Defense and non-defense discretionary programs (the latter including NASA) would each be cut across the board by $54.7 billion in 2013 alone without a deal, with more cuts in later years. The exact impact of those cuts on NASA or other agencies are uncertain, notes the nonprofit research and advocacy organization OMB Watch, given the exemptions for some programs included in the original legislation. It’s likely, though, that NASA could have a significantly smaller budget in 2013, forcing it to make hard decisions about its portfolio of programs.

Then again, there’s no guarantee that specific sequestration plan would go into effect even if the supercommittee doesn’t produce a plan this week. That process is part of an act of Congress signed into law by the President, which could be undone by another act of Congress signed into law by the President. Already there are discussions about modifying the sequestration cuts, primarily to reduce their impact on defense programs, but in such a scenario everything could be on the table. In other words, just when you thought you found certainty about NASA’s budget comes another round of uncertainty.