One thing seems fairly certain about NASA’s budget in Fiscal Year 2016 – a contentious clash is afoot between Congress and the Obama Administration on the space agency’s funding priorities and direction that will result in a multitude of significant winners and losers in a wide range of programs in the years ahead.
Not surprisingly, the Republican Congress and Democratic President Barack Obama are on a collision course regarding U.S. space policy, with fundamental differences on strategies and a wide gulf on ideas of where to spend our very limited federal dollars in the waning years of the current Administration.
On Feb. 2, the Obama Administration proposed a NASA budget allocation of $18.5 Billion for the new Fiscal Year 2016, which amounts to a half-billion dollar increase over the enacted budget for FY 2015.
Now the US House Committee and Subcommittee responsible for deciding NASA’s budget (with Republican member majorities) have started their markup process, taking action and votes and begun slicing here and adding there.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden formally announced the rollout of NASA’s FY 2016 budget request during a “state of the agency” address at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) In February.
“To further advance these plans and keep on moving forward on our journey to Mars, President Obama today is proposing an FY 2016 budget of $18.5 billion for NASA, building on the significant investments the administration has made in America’s space program over the past six years,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said to NASA workers and media representatives gathered at the KSC facility where Orion is being manufactured.
One of the only things that the House and Obama Administration agree on is the top line budget allocation of $18.5 Billion for the NASA’s Fiscal Year 2016 allocation.
“NASA is funded at $18.5 billion in the bill, $519 million above the 2015 enacted level,” said Congressman John Culberson (R-TX ), the Chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS), on May 15.
“In another tough budget year, this bill prioritizes funding for law enforcement, national security, space exploration, and scientific research,” said Chairman Culberson.
Overall the additional $519 million for FY 2016 translates to a 2.7% increase over FY 2015. That compares to about a 6.4% proposed boost for the overall US Federal Budget amounting to $4 Trillion. So NASA’s increase is shortchanged compared to others, but an small increase is better than nothing at all.
Obama Administration officials say the 2016 proposal keeps the key Orion manned capsule and SLS heavy lift rocket programs on track to launch humans to deep space in the next decade. It also significantly supplements the commercial crew program (CCP) initiative to send our astronauts to low Earth orbit and the space station later this decade.
In numerous forums Bolden has repeatedly stated that NASA’s overriding goal is to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s. To accomplish the ‘Journey to Mars’ initiative, NASA is developing the state of the art Orion deep space crew capsule and mammoth SLS rocket.
“NASA is firmly on a journey to Mars. Make no mistake, this journey will help guide and define our generation,” Bolden said.
However, both deep space exploration programs had their budgets cut in the White House FY 2016 proposal compared to FY 2015. The 2015 combined total for both in the Exploration Systems line item of $3.245 Billion is reduced in 2016 to $2.863 Billion, or over 10%.
By comparison, the House subcommittee voted for a total for Exploration Systems of $3.409 Billion for 2016. The big change was a substantial increase for SLS of nearly a half billion. Orion and Ground Systems Development are funded at the Administrations requested levels of $1.096 billion and $410 million respectively, which corresponds to a cut for Orion from FY 2015.
Furthermore, in the past year NASA announced a nearly year long delay in the maiden test flight of SLS from December 2017. It is now targeted for no later than November 2018 and will be configured in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) version with a liftoff thrust of 8.4 million pounds.
SLS-1 will loft the uncrewed Orion capsule on the Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) flight on an approximately three week long test flight beyond the Moon and back.
Orion’s inaugural mission, dubbed Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT), flew a virtually flawless flight on Dec. 5, 2014, and they have been busily reviewing the reams of data returned ever since.
NASA officials have said that a funding increase in the requested SLS and Orion budgets will not move up the 2018 launch date.
But what also seems rather abundantly clear is that the proposed White House cuts to SLS and Orion will slow the pace of critical testing and hardware manufacturing, potentially endangering the 2018 target launch date.
Nevertheless, because of numerous changes and additional cuts to NASA’s technology development programs, Bolden is not pleased with the House budget proposal regarding the Journey to Mars initiative.
The House proposal would cut technology development by nearly $100 million from $725 million to $625 million.
“Unfortunately, this work is in jeopardy of being halted, delayed or possibly undone by the [House Appropriation Committee] Budget Bill as currently written,” wrote Bolden in a new blog update.
The big House committee plus up for SLS apparently comes at the expense of NASA’s other human spaceflight pillar, namely the Commercial Crew program of ‘space taxis’ to transport our astronauts to the low Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS).
Whereas the White House substantially fortified the CCP program, the House committee wipes out most of the increase.
CCP got a hefty and much needed increase from the Administration of nearly 50% from $805 Million in FY 2015 to $1.244 Billion in FY 2016. In reality that only partially makes up for substantial prior cuts by the Congress which has not fully funded the Administration’s CCP funding requests, since its inception in 2010.
The significant budget slashes amounting to 50% or more by Congress, have forced NASA to delay the first commercial crew flights of the private ‘space taxis’ from 2015 to 2017.
The net effect of Congressional CCP cuts has been to prolong US sole reliance on the Russian Soyuz manned capsule at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Indeed, given the crisis in Ukraine, one might think the Congress would eagerly embrace wanting to reduce our total dependence on the Russians for human spaceflight.
Especially given the two major launch failures suffered by the Russian Soyuz and Proton rockets in the past few weeks, it would seem prudent to wean our dependence on Russia and fortify development of an indigenous US system to launch our astronauts to the ISS.
Instead the House committee has dealt another substantial blow to CCP funding by slashing the Administrations 2016 request from $1.244 Billion to $1.0 Billion.
Administrator Bolden has said that full CCP funding in 2016 is required to keep the program marching towards a 2017 launch.
Otherwise the first crewed flights could be delayed yet again and the CCP contracts with both Boeing and SpaceX may have to be renegotiated to ‘slow progress’ on completing the required milestones to certify that the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spaceships are ready, safe and reliable.
“It would upend the investments we need to execute contracts with Boeing and SpaceX to return the launches of American astronauts to American soil and to do it by 2017,” wrote Bolden in his NASA blog.
“Instead, it would force us to continue our sole reliance on Russia. In other words, it would guarantee we will continue to send millions of dollars a year to Moscow instead of investing that money in United States, creating jobs and once again launching Americans from U.S. soil.”
Science is another area where priorities are differ markedly between the White House and Republican Congress.
Overall the NASA science budget of $5.3 billion gets cut by about $51 million. In recent years, the White House has cut the Planetary Sciences Division budget by over $300 million, as outlined here. They even “zeroed out” funding for the long lived Opportunity rover.
The House is seeking to shift significant funding away from Earth sciences towards other line items. Planetary Sciences might receive an increase, with a funding increase especially for the proposed Europa orbiter mission due to launch in the 2020s.
Bolden had this reaction to the Earth Science cuts.
“NASA has an amazing fleet of Earth observation satellites, many in partnership with other nations, and they help us predict and respond to disaster as well as understand climate change and many other aspects of our living planet’s processes. Yet, the House proposal would seriously reduce our Earth science program and threaten to set back generations worth of progress in better understanding our changing climate, and our ability to prepare for and respond to earthquakes, droughts, and storm events.”
“This includes funding above the President’s request for planetary science to ensure the continuation of critical research and development programs,” says Culberson.
Of course the U.S. Senate has yet to act.
How will it end?
Stay tuned here for continuing updates.
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