Credit: SpaceNews/Lance H. Marburger

WASHINGTON — NASA unveiled a mostly business as usual $17.7 billion spending plan April 10 that brushes aside sequestration to keep key space programs on track while making a handful of new investments, including a $105 million down payment on a mission to capture an asteroid and haul it to the Moon.

U.S. President Barack Obama, in submitting his 2014 budget request to Congress, is calling for reversing deep cuts to NASA and other federal agencies by canceling the $1.2 trillion sequester triggered last month and replacing it with a 10-year deficit reduction plan that includes tax hikes and entitlement reform.

The president’s proposal would return NASA’s budget to its 2012 level, which is roughly $1 billion more than the $16.6 billion the agency stands to receive under the sequestered $1 trillion spending bill Congress enacted last month to keep the U.S. government running through September.

The asteroid-capture mission aims to make good on Obama’s 2010 pledge to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025.

NASA expects to spend roughly $1 billion to launch a probe in 2017 to capture an asteroid, haul it to a location near the Moon and send astronauts there as soon as 2021. NASA Chief Financial Officer Robinson said the oft-cited $2.6 billion estimate included in the Keck Institute for Space Studies’ influential asteroid-return mission concept study did not take into account activities NASA already has under way and focused on retrieving a carbonaceous asteroid from the outer reaches of the solar system’s asteroid belt.

The $105 million NASA is seeking in 2014 for the asteroid-capture mission would be spread across NASA’s Science, Human Exploration and Space Technology mission directorates. They would use the money to identify target asteroids, refine the mission architecture, develop capturing technologies and work on the solar electric propulsion system that would power the asteroid-capture spacecraft.

New Funding Responsibilities

Aside from the asteroid-capture mission, which seeks to leverage work NASA already is doing, the agency’s budget contains no major new programs. However, it does include a number of new funding responsibilities.

For example, after several failed attempts to sway Congress to give the Department of Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey full budgetary responsibility for future land-imaging satellites, the Obama administration is requesting $30 million in NASA’s $1.85 billion Earth science budget to develop a follow-on to the Landsat Data Continuity Mission launched in February.

Robinson said the agency expects to decide in 2014 whether to build a copy of the spacecraft or take a more innovative approach to obtaining the moderate-resolution imagery the Landsat program has been collecting for over 40 years.

Likewise, the White House is proposing that NASA spend $40 million in 2014 developing climate instruments that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would fly on its Joint Polar Satellite System weather satellites.

NASA’s Planetary Science Division, whose budget would rise slightly to $1.2 billion compared with Obama’s 2013 budget, is being asked to foot the Department of Energy’s entire bill for producing plutonium-238, a radioactive isotope used to power certain deep-space missions. Robinson said this will cost NASA about $65 million in 2014, up from the $15 million it has contributed to the effort in recent years.

Key Programs

NASA’s 2014 budget proposal aims to keep the Orion crew capsule and its Space Launch System booster on track for an unmanned test launch in 2017 by giving the government-led effort $2.7 billion next year — about the same as the Obama administration sought and Congress ultimately approved for 2013 but about $200 million below the 2012 level

The budget also seeks to keep the United States on track to resume launching American astronauts from U.S. soil by 2017 by funding the Commercial Crew Program at $821 million — significantly more than Congress so far has been willing to spend to help Boeing, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and Sierra Nevada develop competing crew launch systems. NASA officials are hopeful Congress will finally fund the full request.

“I really do think they hear us,” a senior NASA official said. “If we want to have American systems flying to [the international space station], this is the way to do it.”

The James Webb Space Telescope, the $8 billion infrared observatory NASA is racing to finish in time for a 2017 launch aboard a European Space Agency-provided Ariane 5 rocket, would receive $658 million in 2014, or about $16 million more than the rest of the agency’s astrophysics program.

Finishing Webb and other legacy programs, including a 2020 Mars rover NASA announced last year as a substitute for the leading role it had been planning to play in Europe’s ExoMars mission, is expected to keep NASA from taking on new projects in the years immediately ahead.

“What we basically do is starve the pipeline because we can’t start new stuff,” the senior NASA official said.

If the White House and Congress fail to come to terms on a deficit reduction plan before the 2014 budget year begins Oct. 1, NASA will be hard pressed to maintain the schedules of its priority programs, let alone start anything remotely new.

“We won’t be able to do the broad swath of activities that are planned here,” Robinson said.

Brian Berger is editor in chief of and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. His reporting on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was...