Today was both Groundhog Day–Punxsutawney Phil said winter will last an extra six weeks–and the release of the White House’s proposed budget for NASA for the 2016 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, 2015. The White House’s Office of Management and Budget, the actual author of NASA’s annual budget, has once again proposed sharp cuts to programs that have strong support within Congress in order to fund large increases in White House cherished programs, even at levels Congress has shown little interest in supporting and has even repeatedly warned are too high. Comparing NASA’s proposed FY2016 budget to past proposed budgets would easily leave one with the feeling of, “It’s déjà vu all over again,” as the great wordsmith Yogi Berra once put it. And like the White House NASA budget proposals since 2011, this one is dead-on-arrival in Congress.
One program that sees a significant drop in funding is the Jupiter Europa mission, which is surprising given its strong, public support from Rep. John Culbertson. OMB proposes that the Jupiter Europa mission, which was appropriated $100 million for 2015, be cut by 70 percent, to $30 million next year. Out-year budget projections will not see Jupiter Europa funded at 2015 levels until 2020. It is unlikely that Rep. Culbertson, who is the new Chairman of the House Appropriations Commerce Justice and Science Subcommittee, will let the cuts to Jupiter Europa survive.
For the fifth fiscal year in a row, the White House proposes to cut both the Orion and the Space Launch System programs by large amounts. The Orion program would be cut by 8.2 percent and Space Launch System by over 20 percent from levels appropriated in FY2015. As with past efforts by the White House and OMB to cut Orion and the Space Launch System, it is unlikely that these proposed budget cuts will survive.
For fiscal year 2016, the White House proposes to increase Commercial Crew program (CCP) funding by a whopping 54.5 percent over levels appropriated in the current year, from $805 million to $1.243 billion. Many were pleasantly surprised by Congress’ willingness to appropriate $696 million in the FY2014 budget, although $171 million of that funding hinged upon the NASA Administrator certifying that the commercial crew program was subjected to an independent benefit-cost analysis that took into consideration the total Federal investment in the commercial crew program and the expected operational life of the International Space Station. For 2015 appropriations, in response to learning about commercial crew milestone slips long after the fact, Congress put in a requirement that:
“In order to provide adequate insight into this program, NASA shall provide quarterly reports to the Committees on Appropriations of the House and Senate that include the technical and financial quarterly reports required of each awardee, as well as any actions taken by NASA or the awardees to adjust schedule, change or alter milestones, or modify milestone payments. In the event that there are adjustments to the schedule in excess of 2 months, NASA shall immediately notify the Committees in writing and provide a detailed explanation and justification for the schedule alteration. Moreover, any accompanying alteration in milestones or milestone payments shall be reflected in the aforementioned notification.“
The International Space Station program will see a budget increase of 4.6 percent from FY15 $3.828 billion to $4.004 billion. There are several issues affecting the ISS program that are coming to a head in the next year or two. To date, no ISS partners have committed to extending ISS beyond 2020. The ESA’s Director General Jean stated in a Dec. 26, 2014, interview with TV-Navosti that the ESA was committed to ISS until 2020 but was ready for another mission. And most, if not all, of the ISS partners’ agreements terminate in 2017. NASA’s ISS budget projections will increase by over one billion to $4.864 billion by 2020. If the United States is to go it alone in operating ISS, as appears likely, NASA’s budget will need to increase substantially.
The White House’s fiscal year 2016 NASA budget, like budgets between 2011 and 2015, appears to once again attempt to short-change NASA’s next-generation human space exploration architecture. That the Administration’s earlier attempts to affect such budgetary changes have failed seems to have gone unnoticed by the White House and its Office of Management and Budget. Even more surprising is that the White House seems ignore that the current make-up of Congress makes it less likely than ever to approve cuts to the Orion and SLS programs, never mind Jupiter Europa, leaving the question of whether this proposed budget will even make a mark during budget deliberations. While only time will tell, given the history, the answer is likely that it will not. Instead, given the proposed NASA budget released today, Congress will in both word and deed, as it has over the past 5 years, oversee the U.S.’s human spaceflight program.