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Development of solar electric propulsion is a key element of NASA’s asteroid initiative in its 2014 budget proposal, but some members of Congress remain skeptical of the plan. (credit: NASA)

Drawing the battle lines for NASA’s 2014 budget

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While it was nearly two months late, the NASA 2014 budget proposal released on April 10 didn’t contain a lot of surprises. In broad strokes, the 2014 budget proposal is similar to the 2013 budget proposal, both in overall funding (about $17.7 billion) and the programs it funds—or doesn’t fund enough, as the case may be. The biggest difference in the 2014 budget is the inclusion of a new, relatively high-profile asteroid initiative, but that effort accounts for less than one percent of the overall budget. The debate over that initiative, as well as some other, more familiar battles, will likely dominate congressional deliberations over the budget in the coming months, as some recent hearings have demonstrated.

Commercial crew versus SLS

One of the biggest battles shaping up over the administration’s budget proposal is also a very familiar one: funding for NASA’s commercial crew effort and its heavy-lift launch vehicle, the Space Launch System (SLS). Strictly speaking, the two are not intended to be competitive with each other: the Commercial Crew Program is designed to support development by companies of vehicles capable of transporting astronauts to and from low Earth orbit, including the International Space Station (ISS), while SLS is designed for deep-space missions to the Moon, asteroids, and Mars. Yet, advocates of one program often are also critics of the other, and the two are seen as competitors for limited funding, even though SLS’s budget is significantly larger than spending on commercial crew.

“This budget focuses, I believe, too heavily on maintaining the fiction of privately-funded commercial launch vehicles,” claimed Sen. Shelby.

The FY2014 budget appeared to reinforce that perceived competition, particularly among SLS supporters. The budget seeks $821.4 million for commercial crew, up from the pre-sequester amount of $525 million Congress approved for 2013 (sequestration and a separate rescission included in the appropriations bill would cut that to just under $490 million), although NASA had sought a similar amount in its original FY13 budget request. SLS, meanwhile, would get $1.385 billion for FY14, compared to $1.497 billion in FY12. (That amount does not include a separate spending on SLS-related ground systems, included in other lines of the budget, that bring the program’s total to $1.845 billion in FY14, versus $1.873 billion in FY12.)

Those amounts attracted the attention, and criticism, of some members of Congress, who saw it as evidence that the administration was favoring commercial crew at the expense of SLS. “I am concerned that NASA has neglected Congressional funding priorities,” Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), chairman of the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee, said in an opening statement at a hearing April 24 about the NASA budget proposal. He cited in particular spending on SLS and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) spacecraft. “While Congress continues to insist that these two programs be priorities, NASA has once again offered a budget that does not demonstrate the sustained commitment to their development.”

In a hearing the following day by the Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), ranking member of that subcommittee as well as the full appropriations committee, was even more critical of spending on commercial crew versus SLS. “This budget focuses, I believe, too heavily on maintaining the fiction of privately-funded commercial launch vehicles, which diverts, I think, critical resources from NASA’s goal of developing human spaceflight capabilities with the SLS,” he said in his opening statement.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden, the sole witness at both hearings, defended the spending priorities of the budget proposal. “We are on schedule, on target, on cost to provide that 70-metric-ton vehicle,” he said at the Senate hearing, referring to the payload capacity of the initial version of the SLS, whose first launch is planned for 2017. At the House hearing, he said that the requested funding for SLS was what was needed to maintain that schedule, and that adding funding to it at the expense of commercial crew would not make much of a difference to the heavy-lifter’s development. “If I added $300 million to the SLS program,” he said, referring to the approximate increase in commercial crew sought in the FY14 budget, “you wouldn’t notice it.”

Bolden kept up the sales pitch for commercial crew last week, after signing a contract modification with the Russian space agency Roscosmos to purchase six additional seats on Soyuz flights to the ISS in 2016 for $424 million. “If NASA had received the President’s requested funding for this plan, we would not have been forced to recently sign a new contract with Roscosmos for Soyuz transportation flights,” Bolden said in a blog post accompanying the announcement of the deal. Bolden was referring to funding for the program significantly below proposals by the administration dating back three years, when the original goal of commercial crew was to have it enter service in 2015.

“They both are good,” Bolden said of asteroids and the Moon. “The one that is executable in today’s budget environment is an asteroid mission.”

NASA’s current goal is to begin flights by 2017, but that date is in jeopardy, Bolden said, if Congress doesn’t fully fund the commercial crew program in the FY14 budget request. “If we do not get $822 million in the 2014 budget as requested by the President,” he said at the Senate hearing, “it will be my unfortunate duty to advise the Congress and the President that we probably will not make 2017 for the availability of an American capability to get our astronauts to space, and I will have to tell you that I’m going to have to come back and ask for authorization to once again pay the Russians to take our crews to space.”

“We’re running out of wiggle room” to keep that 2017 date, Bolden said Thursday in a speech to the Space Transportation Association on Capitol Hill. “You’ve got to pay if you want something, and if the nation wants to have a commercial capability, an American capability, to get cargo and crew to low Earth orbit, you have to pay for it.”

Defending the asteroid mission

The biggest new item in NASA’s 2014 budget request was a new “asteroid initiative” featuring a proposal to send a robotic spacecraft to a small near Earth asteroid and redirect it into orbit around the Moon, where it cold be visited by astronauts, perhaps on the first crewed SLS/Orion mission in 2021 (see “To catch a planetoid”, The Space Review, April 22, 2013). The budget seeks $105 million for this initiative, including funding for key technologies needed for the mission as well as enhanced efforts to search for suitable asteroids.

The plan, though, has raised more eyebrows than support in Congress so far. “This request was not accompanied by a budget profile, technical plan, or long-term strategy, yet NASA has asked Congress to commit to funding the first steps,” complained Rep. Palazzo at the House hearing, who also described the initiative as coming “out of the blue.”

Other members at the hearing noted the lack of enthusiasm about human asteroid missions in general, including a report by the National Research Council in December that cited only “isolated pockets of support” for the goal expressed by President Obama in a 2010 speech of sending humans to a near Earth asteroid by 2025 (see “What’s the purpose of a 21st century space agency?”, The Space Review, December 17, 2012).

Bolden defended the asteroid initiative in part because it would give NASA experience in diverting threatening asteroids. The mission, he said at the House hearing, “will demonstrate that humans, can, in fact, alter the path of an asteroid that’s headed towards Earth.”

An asteroid mission would also, he said, build experience towards eventual human missions to Mars. Some at the House hearing wondered if the Moon would be a better destination to gain that experience prior to going to Mars, but Bolden noted that, fiscally speaking, the asteroid mission concept was the better option. “They both are good,” he said. “The one that is executable in today’s budget environment is an asteroid mission.”

There was some support for the asteroid mission at the House hearing. “Personally, I concur” with NASA’s focus on an asteroid mission, said Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL). “I think that’s a good direction to go.” Brooks added that the mission deals with the small but real risk of asteroid impacts as well as, in his opinion, providing another justification for developing the SLS.

Interestingly, at the Senate hearing, the asteroid mission never came up other than a veiled reference by Sen. Shelby in his opening statement. “I’m concerned, Gen. Bolden, that the budget before us is an example of chasing the next great idea while sacrificing current investments,” he said.

Planetary pushback

The asteroid mission has also been discussed along with concerns about cuts in NASA’s planetary sciences program. As was the case in fiscal year 2013, the 2014 budget proposal seeks to fund planetary sciences at approximately $1.2 billion, down from the $1.5 billion the program received in 2012. Congress partially restored those funding cuts in the final 2013 spending bill, although the final amount planetary received won’t be known until NASA submits an operating plan to Congress by this Friday.

“At this level, the budget precludes a major mission to any planet other than Mars after 2017,” the AAS said of NASA’s planetary science budget.

There are concerns that NASA may use that operating plan to redirect some of that additional planetary funding to other agency programs. “There have been reports that the FY 2013 NASA Operating Plan will slash funding from the Planetary Science programs,” the office of Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) warned in an April 19 press release. That release included a letter to Bolden from Schiff, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), asking him to avoid any reprogramming of funds that “disproportionately applies sequester and across-the-board cuts to the Science budget.”

At the same time, planetary advocates have been gearing up to increase planetary science above the level in the 2014 budget proposal, arguing that the lower funding level in the proposed budget will result in delays for both flagship science missions, like a Europa orbiter, as well as smaller missions. “The proposed budget for FY14, $1.217 billion, represents the latest in a multi-year effort to underfund Planetary Science within NASA,” The Planetary Society noted in testimony it submitted to Congress for last month’s hearings. “In difficult economic times, The Planetary Society recommends that Congress prioritize the effective and productive Planetary Science Division within NASA and fund it at $1.5 billion per year.”

The American Astronomical Society (AAS), a professional organization of astronomers, also supports additional planetary funding. “The AAS is deeply concerned about the Administration’s renewed proposal to cut NASA’s Planetary Science Division,” it said in a statement last week. “At this level, the budget precludes a major mission to any planet other than Mars after 2017, and precludes exploration of Europa, a high priority for the planetary science community.”

At the STA luncheon last week, Bolden said the situation for planetary sciences wasn’t as dire as it was just a year ago. “The FY14 request is actually up from where we were,” he said, saying that the decision announced last December to pursue a 2020 Mars rover based on Curiosity, as well as the asteroid initiative, means “we think we’re up in the planetary science program” compared to a year ago.

Even those planetary scientists who study asteroids (“asteroidologists,” as Bolden called them in his STA speech) don’t necessary concur with that assessment. The Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG), a group of planetary scientists who provide advice to NASA on this topic, concluded at a March meeting that it had been essentially locked out of deliberations about the proposed asteroid retrieval mission by NASA’s Human Explorations and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) and Science Mission Directorate (SMD). The move, the committee noted in its meeting minutes, “seems a peculiar decision and raises the serious question of the extent to which HEOMD and SMD wish to make decisions based on restricted input promoting specific outcomes.

Revamping education

A program that spends far less money than science or human spaceflight, but has a high profile, is NASA’s education program. The FY14 budget proposal, though, would cut education spending from $136 million in FY12 to $94 million as part of a government-wide consolidation and restructuring of education programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), a move that has raised concerns by many that NASA’s own education efforts might be diluted.

Bolden said his interest in restructuring education came because he could not gauge how well NASA’s programs worked. “When I asked what the metrics were for the effectiveness of our K-12 STEM education program, I got blank stares,” he said at the House hearing. “We are not able to demonstrate our effectiveness today.”

If sequestration continues into FY14, Bolden said, “all bets are off… The asteroid mission will probably go away.”

The consolidated STEM education effort, he said, would give NASA access to the capabilities elsewhere in government, such as the Department of Education and the NSF, to develop metrics for the effectiveness of educational efforts. These and other agencies would, in turn, have access to NASA-unique educational tools, like live downlinks from the ISS.

The spending reduction gives many the perception, though, that education at NASA in general is begin gutted. “It is not slashed or gutted or anything,” Bolden said of the education budget in his STA speech. “It’s trying to make sure we get the best programs out there from the federal government agencies, and where there’s duplication we get rid of it. We are not decimating anyone’s programs.”

The bigger budget picture

NASA’s proposed budget, though, has to be taken in the context of the overall budget, and specifically the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration. Those cuts remain a threat for 2014 and beyond if the White House and Congress cannot come up with an alternative plan for reducing the budget deficit.

The budget proposal for NASA and other federal agencies assumes that sequestration is avoided through such an alternative plan. However, if that doesn’t happen, the budget would be subject to another round of across-the-board cuts that would reduce NASA’s overall budget to as low as $16.1 billion, Bolden warned.

If sequestration continues into FY14, Bolden said at the House hearing, “to be quite candid, all bets are off.” There would need to be some hard decisions made about delaying or even cancelling major programs, including the agency’s new asteroid initiative. “The asteroid mission will probably go away.”

“It will impact the priorities NASA and the Congress agreed to,” Bolden said at the Senate hearing, when asked about the effects of continued sequestration. “It will potentially impact JWST [James Webb Space Telescope], it will impact SLS and MPCV, it will devastate commercial crew and cargo.” He added that while NASA had avoided furloughs of civil servants under sequestration this fiscal year, unlike many other federal agencies, those furloughs would be likely in FY14 if sequestration continued.

In his STA speech, Bolden added a little bit of advice to Congress as well about budgets and program priorities. “You make it incredibly challenging when you tell us to do something and you don’t fund it.”