Editorial | Status Quo Minus a Few Things

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Aside from the proposed grounding of an airborne astronomy telescope that is just entering full-scale science operations, U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2015 budget request for NASA is a mixed bag for the space community. The good news is that no other major programs are marked for cancellation, and there’s startup funding for large-scale planetary and astronomy missions. 

On the other hand, the relentless fiscal pressures facing the government are beginning to take their toll, as evidenced by uncertainty surrounding ongoing science missions, plans to defer or scrap development of other projects, and NASA’s call for industry’s help to fund a laser communications experiment slated to fly as a hosted payload aboard a commercial satellite.

As has been the case for the past few years, the budget highlights differences between the White House and Congress over priorities in NASA’s human spaceflight program that show no signs of resolution. The Obama administration continues to seek more funding for NASA’s commercial crew transportation initiative than Congress has proved willing to provide, and again is less generous than lawmakers would like toward the Orion deep-space capsule and Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket programs. In addition, the budget contains technology development funding related to NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, which is getting little traction in Congress despite the fact that, as currently envisioned, it would utilize Orion and SLS, vehicles that otherwise have no place to go.

With a ceiling of $17.5 billion, roughly 1 percent less than NASA received in 2014, and with proposed increases in commercial spaceflight, exploration-related research and development, and space operations effectively offsetting decreases elsewhere, the budget inevitably forced some tough choices. Most notable of these is the decision to mothball the U.S.-German Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), which was built at a cost of $1 billion. Regardless of whether the observatory’s science return is worth its operating cost — NASA was a little late in judging that it wasn’t — the cancellation raises new questions about the U.S. space agency’s reliability as a partner on international projects.  

NASA says the roughly $68 million it will save annually by idling SOFIA will enable the agency to continue operating both the Cassini Saturn orbiter and the Mars Curiosity rover, which are flagship missions. But the picture is murkier for two long-running science missions: the small Mars Opportunity rover and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. NASA said these programs are under review and included the funding required for their continuation in the space agency’s roughly $900 million share of what can best be described as a supplemental funding request that was set apart from the primary fiscal blueprint for 2015.  

Other indications of extreme budgetary pressure include NASA’s decisions to cancel plans to order an additional commercial cargo mission to the international space station, shelve development of the station-bound Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3 instrument and indefinitely defer a solar sail technology demonstration. 

Meanwhile, NASA is appealing for industry’s help to fund a laser communications technology demonstration that was supposed to fly on an unidentified communications satellite around 2017. Although NASA blamed the shortfall facing the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration on a 2014 Space Technology appropriation that was 30 percent lower than the agency sought, there’s little question that the overall budget situation is putting all but the highest-priority programs at risk.

There are bright spots in the request, notably in space science. NASA is once again setting its sights on Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa, seeking $15 million for preliminary work on a mission that agency officials hope to pull off for $1 billion or less. Additionally, the agency is requesting $14 million for work on the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, an astronomy mission that would utilize hardware left over from a canceled National Reconnaissance Office program.

But it remains to be seen whether NASA, within the next five or so years, will be able to muster the hundreds of millions of dollars that eventually will be required annually to fully develop these missions. This will depend in part on the massive James Webb Space Telescope’s ability to stay within its latest budget and schedule, which is by no means a sure thing.

The larger question, which is not new, is whether the White House and Congress will ever reach a meeting of the minds on human spaceflight. This will require flexibility on both sides: NASA could, for example, abandon its ambition to have at least two commercial crew taxis at its disposal and rethink the far-fetched Asteroid Redirect Mission. Congress, meanwhile, could agree to put Orion and SLS on a development trajectory that aligns with an actual mission to a destination on which both sides can agree. 

Failing that, budget-driven cancellations and deferrals, even of healthy programs and promising technology activities, will be the rule at NASA, regardless of whether the government’s broader fiscal pressures ease somewhat. NASA has steered most of the pain to the margins in 2015, but its core activities look vulnerable in future years.