Editorial | NASA’s Groundhog Day Budget Foreshadows More Stalemate

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It was fitting that the release of the White House’s federal budget request for 2016 coincided with Groundhog Day, the annual event where, according to folklore, a large rodent foreshadows winter’s duration. Just as Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow Feb. 2, indicating that six more weeks of cold weather are in store, President Barack Obama’s budget blueprint for NASA foretells an indefinite continuation of the impasse that has gripped the agency for the past several years.

To be fair, the $18.53 billion request, representing a $519 million increase over 2015, has positives, notably a 50 percent increase for a commercial crew program that is entering full-scale development and the start of a Sustainable Land Imaging program that hopefully lives up to its title.

Beyond that, however, the request is uninspired, providing no clarity on the proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), where NASA is weighing two options, and teeing up once again the all-too-familiar battles with Congress over the agency’s direction.

If there were any lingering hope, however slim, that this White House and Congress would ever come to some semblance of accord on NASA’s human spaceflight program, traditionally its biggest and most expensive, it went out the door once and for all with this budget.

That’s not entirely the administration’s fault, of course. Congress for the past several years has pursued its own human spaceflight agenda, which by all appearances is driven less by a compelling and achievable vision than by narrow parochial interests.

In a prelude of what’s to come, House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) reacted to the budget by complaining that it contains too much funding for Earth science and too little for the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and Orion deep-space crew capsule, two massively expensive programs still in search of a consensus destination.

In other words, Congress likely will seek more funding for SLS and Orion, which under the president’s budget would receive very meaty allocations of $1.36 billion and $1.1 billion, respectively. NASA says these sums will be sufficient to keep both vehicles on track for a planned uncrewed test flight — it would be the first launch of SLS — in 2018, even if they represent small decreases from what Congress appropriated for this year.

To pay for SLS and Orion increases, Congress might be tempted to raid the commercial crew account, as it has in past years, perhaps using the argument that the agency should down-select to a single provider of astronaut taxi services to and from the International Space Station.

That would be the absolute wrong thing to do at this stage of the game.

If there were any lingering hope, however slim, that this White House and Congress would ever come to some semblance of accord on NASA’s human spaceflight program, traditionally its biggest and most expensive, it went out the door once and for all with this budget.

Whether or not it makes sense to field — and then have to sustain — two commercial crew services was a legitimate debate at an earlier stage of the program. But NASA is now contractually committed to see both the Boeing and SpaceX taxi concepts through development and an initial round of flights. To significantly trim NASA’s $1.24 billion request for the program would force the agency to renegotiate those contracts and guarantee an extension of U.S. dependence on Russia for space station crew transport.

Another tempting bill payer for SLS/Orion increases might be ARM, which is even less popular on Capitol Hill than it is with the scientific community. But there’s not much there to raid: The White House, in what might be a tacit admission that ARM has little chance of getting any real traction, is seeking $220 million for various projects associated with the mission, including asteroid detection and solar electric propulsion technology.

Meanwhile, NASA has yet to settle on which of two ARM options to pursue: the original plan to nudge a small asteroid into an orbit near the moon for closer inspection, or — even more farfetched — chipping off a piece of a larger asteroid and hauling that to the same place. That means NASA won’t be able to get started in earnest on ARM until 2017 at the earliest, by which time its proponent in chief will be halfway out of the White House door.

If there is an area of the NASA budget that could use a little shoring up, it might be planetary science. As it stands, NASA is planning to pull the plug next year on two missions that independent scientists say are still doing meaningful work: the Opportunity Mars rover and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The request does include $30 million for a new start on a mission to Jupiter’s moon, Europa. It’s not clear that boosting that funding level — lawmakers appropriated $100 million for Europa studies this year — would allow NASA to accelerate or widen the scope of the mission, but those questions are certainly worth asking.

That said, any increase for planetary science should not come at the expense of the Earth science program, which in addition to helping scientists understand the high-impact changes occurring on our planet serves as a critical incubator for weather satellite sensor technology. A better choice of bill payer would be SLS or Orion, as any resulting schedule slips would be of little to no consequence in the grand scheme of things.

Turning back to that, it is taken for granted by many that what NASA needs above all else is a balanced program, and the president’s proposed budget would more or less achieve that. But in the absence of consensus on NASA’s purpose, balance is just another word for stalemate. That’s been the case for several years now, and there’s nothing in the request to suggest that will change.