The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-WV), outgoing chair of the appropriations subcommittee whose oversight includes NASA, offers his take on the agency’s budgetary situation during a Space Transportation Association event on November 18. (credit: J. Foust)

NASA’s extended limbo

Bookmark and Share

On Columbus Day, with a complete lack of fanfare (beyond a one-paragraph release from the White House press secretary), President Obama signed into law S.3729, the NASA Authorization Act of 2010. The signing was seen by many as something of a denouement to the battle over the future of NASA that started when the administration released its fiscal year 2011 budget proposal at the beginning of February, seeking to cancel the Constellation program and replace it with a program with an emphasis on new destinations, technology development, and commercial crew transportation. That battle reached its climax with the passage of the legislation in the House in late September, giving the administration some—but certainly not all—of what it originally asked for from a policy perspective (see “Milestones and transitions”, The Space Review, October 4, 2010).

While the bill’s signing appeared to signal an end to that debate, it may be more accurate to claim that it instead marked the end of one chapter of a much larger debate about the projects and programs—and even the purpose—of NASA. The next chapter is already unfolding, with Capitol Hill again at the locus of the debate. This time, the question is not about what policy should be guiding NASA’s space exploration efforts, but how that policy should be implemented and funded. The immediate effect of this debate is that, nearly two months after Congress passed the authorization bill, NASA’s future plans still have their share of uncertainty.

Omnibus versus CR

At the forefront of the current debate is the question of how much funding NASA will receive for 2011, and how that money will be distributed among the agency’s programs. While the authorization bill earned its name by formally authorizing funding for the agency, it provided no money itself for the agency’s programs. That funding will come from separate appropriations legislation that has yet to be passed by Congress. Because the 2011 fiscal year started on October 1, NASA, along with the rest of the federal government, has been operating on a stopgap funding bill, known as a continuing resolution (CR), which funds agencies at their 2010 levels.

“I don’t know, I don’t think anybody else knows” if Congress will pass a final 2011 appropriations bill in the next few weeks, Rep. Mollohan said.

The current CR runs through this Friday, and given the lack of progress Congress has made since returning in mid-November for a lame duck session, it appears likely the CR will be extended. How long the CR will be extended, though, is uncertain: Congress could choose a short-term extension later into December, if it believes it can complete work on a comprehensive omnibus appropriations bill before adjourning later in December, or it could pass one that extends into the new year, effectively punting the problem to the next Congress, which takes office in early January.

Complicating the issue is the outcome of November’s mid-term elections, where Republicans retook control of the House and narrowed the Democratic majority in the Senate. While appropriators had shown a willingness to fund NASA at the administration’s requested overall level of $19 billion (the same amount authorized in the authorization act) in their deliberations earlier this year, a new Congress would start over and, given comments by House Republican leadership in particular this fall to roll back spending to 2008 levels, could result in significant cuts in the agency’s 2011 budget.

One veteran appropriator isn’t sure what Congress will do. “I don’t know, I don’t think anybody else knows,” said Rep. Alan Mollohan, the outgoing chair of the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, the subcommittee with jurisdiction over NASA’s budget. Mollohan, leaving Congress after 28 years (losing the Democratic primary in his West Virginia district in May), told the audience at a Space Transportation Association breakfast on Capitol Hill on November 18 that Congress could either pass an omnibus bill in the lame duck session or extend the CR. “It could go either way.”

Mollohan, in his comments, expressed a clear preference for an omnibus bill that would incorporate “all the hard work” the appropriations committee’s staff had put into the legislation so far. “My intellect tells me that we should get an omnibus,” he said. The outcome will likely depend on what happens in the Senate, where Republicans, while in the minority, have greater power to slow down consideration of bills than in the House. He added that the endorsement of a ban on earmarks by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) “was not a good omen” for getting an omnibus bill passed.

A key concern about a long-term CR—especially one that lasts for an entire fiscal year, as was the case in 2007, when control of Congress shifted from Republicans to Democrats—is that not only does it fund NASA at the lower 2010 levels, it also leaves in place policies from the previous appropriations legislation. A case in point is a provision in the 2010 appropriations bill that forbids NASA from terminating any part of the Constellation program or starting a new program “unless such program termination, elimination, creation, or initiation is provided in subsequent appropriations Acts.” That provision remains in force with the current CR, which does not lift the prohibition on terminating Constellation programs despite the language in the new authorization act.

“I am cautiously optimistic that we will be okay once the appropriations bill is signed into law,” NASA administrator Bolden said.

“A CR would be bad for NASA,” Mollohan said. He noted that a long-term CR could contain so-called “anomalies” that would allow NASA to fund new programs and end work on elements of Constellation, like the Ares 1 launch vehicle, not included in the authorization act. However, he considered it an imperfect solution, at best: even with such anomalies in a CR, “the new direction enacted in the authorization bill is likely to be delayed as well.”

NASA administrator Charles Bolden is also skeptical that an omnibus bill can be passed before the end of the year. Such a bill “we are hoping will come as soon as possible, in all likelihood not before the new Congress comes in, but that’s not an impossibility,” he said in remarks November 16 at an all-hands meeting at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, according to a transcript of the meeting (closed to the media and general public) obtained by Space News.

Bolden said that he’s talked to “almost every” new member of the next Congress since the November 2 elections and “was heartened to find that if there is an agency that enjoys bipartisan support, it’s NASA and the work that we do.” Thus, he concluded, “I am cautiously optimistic that we will be okay once the appropriations bill is signed into law.”

Deficit cutters take aim

While Congress deals with the tactics of funding NASA for 2011, others are taking a longer-term view of how to reduce federal spending. In February, President Obama established the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, more commonly called the “deficit commission”. This bipartisan group, co-chaired by former Republican senator Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, who was chief of staff for President Clinton, was charged by the White House with “identifying policies to improve the fiscal situation in the medium term and to achieve fiscal sustainability over the long run,” or, in short, find ways to cut a budget deficit that reached nearly $1.3 trillion in fiscal year 2010.

On November 10, Bowles and Simpson released a proposal that featured a combination of spending cuts, tax reform, and modifications to mandatory spending (including Social Security and health care) designed to reduce the deficit to $400 billion by 2015. Included in the proposal was $200 billion in discretionary spending cuts, split evenly between defense and non-defense agencies. The co-chairs achieved those cuts by setting the 2012 budget at 2010 levels, then making one-percent cuts in each of the next three years.

“This subsidy to the private sector is costly, and while commercial spaceflight is a worthy goal, it is unclear why the federal government should be subsidizing the training of the potential crews of such flights,” the deficit commission co-chairs said, explaining their cut of commercial crew funding.

What got the space community’s attention, though, was a specific list of “illustrative” savings that co-chairs released that showed how they could achieve $200 billion in cuts. Included in the list, as item number 24 of 59, was “Eliminate funding for commercial spaceflight”, providing $1.2 billion in savings in 2015. The reference was apparently to NASA’s commercial crew transportation development plan included in the agency’s budget proposal, which proposed spending $6 billion over five years (an average of $1.2 billion a year, although actual amounts in the proposal varied from year to year) to develop spacecraft and launch vehicles for transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

The rationale the co-chairs gave for this cut raised a few eyebrows, though. “This subsidy to the private sector is costly, and while commercial spaceflight is a worthy goal, it is unclear why the federal government should be subsidizing the training of the potential crews of such flights,” it stated. The proposed funding, of course, was not intended for “training of the potential crews” but instead the actual development of systems to transport crews for NASA and other possible customers.

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), the industry group that represents many of the companies interested in the commercial crew program, argued vigorously against the proposed cut, calling it “disastrous” in a statement. “Commercial Crew will in fact result in substantial cost savings to the US taxpayer,” CSF president Brett Alexander said. “Eliminating Commercial Crew would result in total reliance on Russia to get to the space station and result in the loss of thousands of high-tech jobs here in the United States.”

The co-chairs—or, more likely, their staffs—have quietly edited the proposed recommendation about the commercial crew program since its release on the 10th. The updated version, dated November 12th, retains the cut, now retitled, “Eliminate funding to private sector for spaceflight developments”. The sentence about the cut being for subsidizing training is no longer in the paragraph, which now contains no explanation at all for why the co-chairs targeted this specific program.

In his talk at Marshall, Bolden downplayed the proposed cut. “My advice is don’t worry about it,” he told employees, because it is only a proposal by the co-chairs. The full 18-member commission has to vote on a final report by this Wednesday, December 1, and any report requires the approval of at 14 members.

Bolden, though, did express concern about any potential cut in NASA’s budget, such as the plan by House Republicans earlier this fall to roll back non-defense discretionary spending to 2008 levels, which would cut NASA’s budget from $19 billion to just over $17 billion. “It would not be devastating,” Bolden said of such a cut, but “there will be some programs that might go away.”

The next battle over HLVs

Even with the agency’s final 2011 budget unresolved, NASA is trying to move forward on projects identified in the authorization bill. The Senate Commerce Committee, in fact, has scheduled a hearing for this Wednesday on the “transition and implementation” of the authorization act (one originally scheduled for two weeks ago), the first congressional hearing about NASA since the act was signed into law last month.

One topic that may come up in Wednesday’s hearing is NASA’s work on implementing a key provision of the law, the development of a heavy-lift launch vehicle (HLV) called the Space Launch System. It requires NASA to develop a vehicle capable of placing between 70 and 100 tons into low Earth orbit (up to 130 tons with the use of an Earth departure stage) that could launch the Orion capsule, among other payloads, and be put into service by the end of 2016. Moreover, the law calls that NASA utilize existing vehicle development contracts “to the extent practicable”, specifically citing ground testing of solid rocket motors. The report accompanying the bill, while non-binding, was even more specific in the architecture for the HLV, calling for an inline vehicle design “with a large center tank structure with attached multiple liquid propulsion engines and, at a minimum, two solid rocket motors composed of at least four segments being attached to the tank structure to form the core, initial stage of the propulsion vehicle.”

“NASA has signaled an interest recently in possibly circumventing the law,” said Sen. Hatch, regarding new NASA heavy-lift studies.

NASA, though, has shown an interest in examining the trade space beyond the language in the bill or report. In early November NASA picked 13 companies to perform studies “for evaluating heavy-lift launch vehicle system concepts, propulsion technologies, and affordability.” Among the companies getting awards are those with a stake in the architecture proposed in the report, such as ATK, which makes solid rocket motors, but also those like SpaceX and United Launch Alliance that have proposed alternative architectures using variants of the Atlas, Delta, and Falcon launch vehicles.

Those studies may have alarmed some members of Congress, particularly in Utah, where ATK manufactures solid rocket motors. “NASA has signaled an interest recently in possibly circumventing the law,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) in a statement November 18 after a meeting with Bolden and NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver that was also attended by most of the state’s congressional delegation. “My purpose in calling this meeting was to explain in no uncertain terms the Utah congressional delegation’s interest in ensuring that Utah’s solid rocket motor industry is protected.”

“I join my colleagues in admonishing NASA to strictly adhere to the law and use solid rocket motors in the development of the new Space Launch System,” added Sen. Bob Bennett (R-UT) in the statement. However, that statement admitted later that the law does not, in fact, require the use of such motors for the HLV, only that “Utah experts” consulted by the state’s legislators said that the only way to “realistically” meet the performance goals that are in the law is by using solid rocket motors.

Hatch, in the statement, did not sound completely convinced by what Bolden and Garver told him. “Though they assured us that NASA would comply with the law, some of their answers reaffirmed my suspicions that we need to keep a very close watch on the agency,” he said. “I will continue with other delegation members to ensure the agency abides by the law and protects this industry that is so vitally important to our national security and northern Utah’s economy.”

It’s all about implementation

The debate about NASA’s budget and how the agency plans to carry out programs like HLV development is a reminder that policy alone, as defined in the authorization bill, is necessary but not sufficient for the agency to implement a new direction. That policy needs to be acted upon, and with sufficient funding, neither of which are guaranteed.

“Policy follows money, but sometimes authorization bills matter, and certainty the recent NASA authorization bill matters quite a lot,” said Jim Muncy, president of PoliSpace, during a panel session about space policy at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in Las Cruces, New Mexico, last month. He added, though, that the key to the policy—including the broader national space policy issued by the administration in June—is how it’s carried out. “The policy’s great, but the question is, will they implement it correctly?”