For NASA, a New Budget But Old Battles Continue

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WASHINGTON — NASA’s 2016 budget proposal offers a modest funding increase but few new initiatives or other significant changes, setting the stage for another round of debates with Congress about ongoing exploration, commercial crew and other programs.

The overall budget request of $18.53 billion represents a $519 million increase from the $18.01 billion NASA received for 2015. That increase is spread across most major agency accounts except for aeronautics and education, which would lose money compared with the 2015 funding approved by Congress.

Unlike some recent budget proposals, NASA’s 2016 request has little in the way of changes to the agency’s programs. The 2014 request, for example, unveiled the agency’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), while the 2015 request cut funding for an airborne astronomy project, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, later restored by Congress.

Credit: SpaceNews
Credit: SpaceNews

“From my perspective, there are limited surprises in this budget,” NASA Chief Financial Officer David Radzanowski told reporters in a Feb. 2 teleconference. “We have seen this budget before in many ways.”

One of the few new items in the budget is development of new Earth science missions. As part of a multidecade initiative called the Sustainable Land Imaging (SLI) program, NASA will start work this year on a new Landsat spacecraft, called Landsat 9. Based on the Landsat 8 spacecraft launched in 2013, Landsat 9 would correct “small design flaws” in one of Landsat 8’s instruments. The spacecraft is planned for launch in 2023.

NASA will also start work under SLI on a spacecraft called the Thermal-Infrared Free-Flyer to fill a potential gap in data when Landsat 7 runs out of propellant in 2019. That mission would launch “as soon as feasible, likely in 2019,” according to NASA’s budget documents. NASA is requesting $78.9 million for SLI in 2016.

The 2016 budget proposal also includes the formal beginning of a project to send a spacecraft to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. However, NASA’s request of $30 million for the mission, while double the $15 million it asked for last year, is much less than the $100 million allocated by Congress for 2015. The budget would end operations of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars rover Opportunity in 2016.

Familiar Debates
Other parts of the NASA budget include some familiar story lines regarding funding for exploration programs, commercial crew development and ARM.

The budget proposal offers a significant increase to NASA’s commercial crew program. NASA is seeking $1.24 billion for the program, an increase of more than 50 percent from the $805 million it received in 2015. That increase, Radzanowski said, is tied to milestones in contracts NASA awarded in September to Boeing and SpaceX.

He warned that if Congress appropriates less money — it has never fully funded the agency’s request for the program — and the two companies remain on schedule, NASA will have to renegotiate those contracts. “As a result, we can no longer commit to having certified services by the end of 2017,” he said.

NASA is seeking $1.1 billion for Orion, a decrease of nearly $100 million from the $1.19 billion appropriated for 2015. SLS would lose even more, from $1.7 billion in 2015 to $1.36 billion in the 2016 request. Credit: NASA
NASA is seeking $1.1 billion for Orion, a decrease of nearly $100 million from the $1.19 billion appropriated for 2015. SLS would lose even more, from $1.7 billion in 2015 to $1.36 billion in the 2016 request. Credit: NASA

NASA’s Orion and Space Launch System programs would, by contrast, lose money compared with 2015. NASA is seeking $1.1 billion for Orion, a decrease of nearly $100 million from the $1.19 billion appropriated for 2015. SLS would lose even more, from $1.7 billion in 2015 to $1.36 billion in the 2016 request.

NASA took a similar approach in its 2015 budget request, asking for $1.05 billion for Orion and $1.38 billion for SLS, only to have Congress increase funding for both. Radzanowski said the funding NASA requested for 2016 would keep the two programs on track for a first SLS launch in 2018.

The budget proposal says little about ARM, the centerpiece of the agency’s overall asteroid initiative.

The budget proposal says little about ARM, the centerpiece of the agency’s overall asteroid initiative. Rather than a single line item in the budget, funding for the asteroid initiative is spread among the science, human exploration and operations, and space technology mission directorates.

Radzanowski said the budget request includes $220 million for the asteroid initiative at NASA, including $50 million for near-Earth object observations and $69 million to develop solar-electric propulsion, a key technology for ARM. The rest would go to work on developing ARM itself, technologies and techniques for the later human mission to the captured asteroid, and NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge.

ARM has been in limbo since NASA postponed a mid-December decision on which of two options to pursue for its robotic element: redirecting an entire asteroid up to 10 meters across or grabbing a smaller boulder off the surface of a larger asteroid. A mission concept review for ARM, previously scheduled for late February, is now planned for no earlier than late March, Radzanowski said.

Mixed Reactions
The release of the budget proposal kicks off months of debate on Capitol Hill that will likely be focused on the same parts of the budget as in recent years, in particular NASA’s exploration and science programs and its asteroid initiative.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas). Credit: Ripon Society
“The President’s words mean nothing if crucial priorities such as SLS and Orion aren’t given the funding they need in his budget request,” House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said. Credit: Ripon Society

House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) cited a Feb. 2 statement in President Barack Obama’s recent State of the Union address that mentioned a “re-energized space program that will send American astronauts to Mars,” contrasting that to the budget proposal’s cuts to Orion and SLS.

“The President’s words mean nothing if crucial priorities such as SLS and Orion aren’t given the funding they need in his budget request,” Smith said in his statement, criticizing what he perceived as an emphasis on “costly distractions” like Earth sciences and ARM in the budget request.

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), ranking member of the House Science space subcommittee, also cited the State of the Union speech in her more positive assessment of the budget during a speech at the Federal Aviation Administration Commercial Space Transportation Conference here Feb. 5.

“I think it reflects, as you heard in the president’s remarks, the administration’s continued commitment to a more robust space exploration program, but also a continued commitment to the other science and work that goes on at NASA,” she said.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said little about the proposed budget in a “State of NASA” address he gave on the day of the rollout at the Kennedy Space Center, focusing instead on a broad overview of ongoing agency programs.

“It’s a clear vote of confidence to you, the employees of NASA, and the ambitious exploration program you are executing,” Bolden said in his only reference to the budget proposal in that speech.