The US space agency announced a reduced FY13 budget proposal on Monday, with planetary science becoming this year’s major casualty. The Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion – as exploration – also received cuts, leading to Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison issuing a warning that NASA should not cut any money from the Agency’s exploration vehicles.
NASA Budget Proposal:
Despite the usual array of upbeat NASA sound-bytes at the media briefing – this time surrounded by soft-rock promo videos and invited twitter followers shown busily tapping away at their smart phones every time a positive comment was lingering in the air – the painful realities of a global economy in a mess found its way into space via the reduced budget outline.
Yet while the Agency budget was announced at $17.7 billion, only $59 million less than Congress approved for the current fiscal year, the media headlines are mainly focusing on the major cut to the planetary science missions to Mars – otherwise noted as part of the “difficult choices”.
“Provides $17.7 billion, a decrease of 0.3 percent, or $59 million, below the 2012 enacted level. While making difficult choices, the Budget builds on our existing space infrastructure, continues efforts to streamline agency operations, and preserves innovative capabilities and technologies to sustain American leadership in space,” the White House overview noted.
If the budget request is approved, planetary science will see a cut around the 21 percent mark – which includes NASA’s withdrawal from the joint-European mission called ExoMars, and refers all Mars exploration to a strategy overview, which will be conducted over the coming months.
The NASA budget includes $4 billion for space operations and $4 billion for exploration activities in the Human Exploration Operations mission directorate, including close-out of the Space Shuttle Program, and funding for the International Space Station, $4.9 billion for science, $669 million for space technology and $552 million for aeronautics research.
On face value, it appears NASA is at least attempting to show it is following the law outlined in the 2010 Authorization Act, which won majority political support and the signature of President Obama, reversing a controversial FY2011 budget proposal, and placing human exploration back to the forefront of NASA’s long-term goals.
“This budget in-sources jobs, creates capabilities here at home – and strengthens our workforce, all while opening the next great chapter in American exploration,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden proclaimed. “And as we reach for new heights in space, we’re creating new jobs right here on Earth, helping to support an economy that’s built to last.”
Those new heights were promoted as human exploration missions to Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) and Mars – the latter still a distant dream in the mid 2030s. Yet there wasn’t any reference made by General Bolden on the exciting internal developments relating to an Exploration Gateway Platform or Lunar surface missions.
The NASA leader also decided against mentioning the schedule evaluations which have noted confidence in not only debuting the SLS in 2017 – as confirmed again on Monday – but also a second mission in 2019.
Instead, the NASA administrator decided to heap praise on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) – which has struggled with massive cost overruns – citing it as a flagship NASA mission, opting not to class either commercial crew, SLS, or Orion in the same bracket, whilst claiming SLS will not fly with a crew until 2021, as previously noted in the worst-case schedule scenario.
Some cuts are only obvious when reading the breakdown of the Exploration section, past the Exploration Systems Development overview and into the specific totals for SLS, Orion and Commercial Crew, etc. The figures show a $175 million cut for Orion in the FY13 proposal, when compared to the authorized funds for FY2012. SLS also appeared to suffer from a cut, while Commercial Crew gains $423 million.
Edit: However, there are additional funds belonging to SLS and MPCV for construction of facilities that have been put into a separate budget line item for FY2013 (Construction & Environmental Compliance and Restoration). These are $140.4m and $3.3m respectively – technically resulting in a $25m rise for SLS.
Regardless, a warning was issued by one of the 2010 Authorization Act architects, U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), Ranking Member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, who believes the above figures point to Commercial Crew funds benefiting from the cuts made to SLS and Orion.
“Despite repeated assurances from NASA and White House officials that the SLS and Orion are ‘key elements of our future strategy for human space exploration’, vehicle development for the heavy lift SLS rocket and the Orion capsule is cut by hundreds of millions of dollars,” noted the Senator.
“These reductions will slow the development of the SLS and the Orion crew vehicle, making it impossible for them to provide backup capability for supporting the space station. The Administration remains insistent on cutting SLS and Orion to pay for commercial crew rather than accommodating both.
“I will once again work with my colleagues in the Congress to ensure NASA receives the funding, consistent with law passed by Congress and signed by the President, needed to preserve our leadership in space and open the doors to future exploration and missions of discovery.”
The potential nightmare scenario which may play out in the upcoming political evaluations could be the targeting of the Commercial Crew funding.
As announced on Monday, the United States is not expecting to regain domestic crew launch capability until 2017, instead relying on the Russians to sell seats on their Soyuz to allow a continued American presence on the International Space Station (ISS) – a facility which was mainly constructed and paid for by NASA.
A reduction in support for Commercial Crew could threaten to slip the schedule past 2017 – after previously tracking 2014/2015 – leading to yet more funds being diverted to Russia for crew support.
Such a scenario could then initiate SLS and Orion into the “back up” role – as alluded to in the 2010 Authorization Act – an undesirable situation where an overpowered launch vehicle lofts a spacecraft – designed for Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) exploration – on Low Earth Orbit (LEO) runs to the ISS.
This point was raised by space policy expert Marcia Smith during a media telecon on Monday with Bill Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, who insisted no plans were being made at this time to use Orion in such a back up role.
“The focus is for us to get a redundant capability as soon as we can. In terms of using Orion for that back up capability, we’re not precluding that, but we’re not doing anything actively to allow that to occur,” noted Mr Gerstenmaier. “NASA is not doing any design work on Orion or SLS that would allow it (Orion) to go to the Station.
“It’s not a very effective way to get to LEO. It’s really designed to go to BEO, and that’s where we want to stay focused on.”
Noting confidence in the Russian’s ability to return from their woes of 2011, Mr Gerstenmaier added that any long-term issue with Soyuz would result in either the decrewing of the ISS – as was previously threatened last year – with the ISS continuing to fly unmanned – as it is capable of doing – for a period of time, and/or attempt to accelerate a commercial crew partner.
A third scenario, involving the launch of Orion on a Delta IV-Heavy, wasn’t addressed in Mr Gerstenmaier’s comments. However, with Orion already booked to fly an uncrewed test mission (Exploration Test Flight -1) in 2014, the potential to provide some separation between SLS’ schedule and Orion’s advanced development may be available, if the Delta IV-H can be human-rated – something which sources claim can be achieved.
However, a more sensible approach of concentrating on funding support for the Commercial Crew partners remains the primary focus, should political support provide the required money to allow private industry to push forward with the development of their vehicles.
This budget proposal will be evaluated by lawmakers over the coming period, hopefully without a fight breaking out between commercial crew and SLS/Orion.
(Images: NASA, ULA, US Senate and L2.)
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