Washington — A funding shortfall this year will prevent NASA from meeting a White House-imposed 2014 deadline for fielding the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, Mike Griffin, the U.S. space agency’s administrator, told a Senate panel Feb. 28.
Griffin previously had warned that Orion’s schedule was in jeopardy as a result of the bare-bones spending measure Congress enacted this year denying NASA the $544 million budget increase it had been seeking for 2007. But he had not previously quantified the extent of the impact on the schedules for Ares and Orion.
Testifying before the Senate Commerce space and aeronautics subcommittee for the first time this year, Griffin said the first crewed flight of Orion atop its Ares 1 launch vehicle would slip into 2015. “Regretfully, I am projecting a four- to six-month slip in our launch dates,” Griffin said. “Our first launch date for Orion and Ares we can expect to slip into early 2015.”
The announcement was unwelcome news to Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) — the subcommittee’s chairman — and his Republican counterpart, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas. Both have key NASA human space flight centers in their states and are very concerned about a lengthy gap between the space shuttle’s proposed 2010 retirement and the introduction of NASA’s new crewed spacecraft.
Nelson and Hutchison pressed Griffin to quantify how much additional money NASA would need this year to keep Orion and Ares from slipping into 2015. “What we want you to come up with is a figure that’s realistic that we can go out and try to find for you so you can keep to a schedule that’s 2014 or earlier,” Nelson said.
“The bottom line is we are down a half-billion dollars and most of that came from the shuttle replacement vehicles,” Griffin said after offering to get back to the committee with a detailed estimate of what NASA would need to keep Orion and Ares on track.
Nelson and Hutchison also quizzed Griffin about how much flexibility he had within the $16.2 billion budget Congress approved for NASA this year to shift funds toward Orion and Ares.
Griffin noted that Congress specified spending levels for each of NASA’s four mission directorates, giving him very little room to maneuver. “We have taken a $700 million cut in human space flight to address a $544 million cut across the agency and the language [in the 2007 spending measure] is most specific,” he said. “I do not feel that I have much flexibility.”
NASA has until March 15 to submit a 2007 operating plan to Congress detailing the spending choices it has made to cope with this year’s budget shortfall.
Griffin did, however, reveal during the hearing that he intends to use an unspecified share of the extra money Congress approved for aeronautics research this year to fund heat shield work directly beneficial to Orion. But Griffin said having the aeronautics mission directorate pay for Orion-related work its people already had been assigned makes only the smallest of dents in the shortfall Orion and Ares are facing.
Griffin also put the committee on notice that funding for research performed aboard the international space station, already lower than Hutchison would like, would be taking another hit.
“We have deferred a great deal of research on the space station,” Griffin said. “If I have to prioritize then I must prioritize completion of the space station over utilization of the space station. And if I have to prioritize then I must prioritize access to the space station over the utilization of the space station, so we have deferred research.”
Discussion of NASA’s immediate budget challenges so dominated the hearing that there was hardly any discussion of NASA’s 2008 request, which seeks $17.3 billion, a roughly 6 percent increase over what the agency has to work with this year.
Griffin said the 2008 budget plan “contains no surprises” since it closely tracks the spending projections NASA made in its now mostly meaningless 2007 budget request. While the specifics of NASA’s 2008 budget are sure to change in light of the choices it makes to get through 2007, Griffin stressed how important it will be for Congress to give the agency the full $17.3 billion it is seeking.
“This year, above all years, we need your help,” Griffin said. “It is imperative that we have the full request for ’08 if we are not to do grave and lasting damage to the program.”