WASHINGTON — U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to scrap the Constellation program and rely on commercial firms to deliver astronauts to low Earth orbit leaves the agency’s science and technology research and development programs big winners in his 2011 budget request.

Obama is asking the U.S. Congress for $19 billion for NASA for the year ahead, a 1.5 percent increase over the agency’s 2010 budget. While Congress approves federal spending only on an annual basis, Obama’s proposal lays out a five-year budget for NASA that totals $100 billion, some $6 billion more than he included in the budget he sent Congress last year.

White House officials said the president’s budget provides for a renewed commitment to Earth observation, expands commercial space initiatives and enhances utilization of an international space station the United States intends to keep supporting through at least 2020. It also includes sustained investments in new technology programs, robotic missions, propulsion research and so-called green aviation.



Earth observation fared best in Obama’s budget for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, which also manages the agency’s robotic planetary probes and space-based astronomy telescopes.

Obama is asking Congress for $5 billion for NASA science programs in 2011, an 11 percent increase over this year’s budget of $4.49 billion. The biggest chunk of the $512 million increase would be used to boost the Earth Science Division’s budget to $1.8 billion, a 27 percent increase over 2010.

The Planetary Science Division would get the second-biggest increase, 11 percent, to $1.485 billion. NASA’s heliophysics budget would grow by around 2 percent to $641.9 million, while the agency’s astrophysics budget — which funds the Hubble Space Telescope and other space-based observatories — would see its $1.1 billion budget shrink by about $28 million.

Ed Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said the budget request includes an additional $2 billion for the Science Mission Directorate over the next five years, compared with Obama’s previous budget projections.

It’s a major increase to the science budget,” Weiler told reporters during a Feb. 2 teleconference, adding that the boost for Earth Science in particular makes up for years of declining budgets over the last decade at a time when scientists were learning how important Earth monitoring is to climate research.

NASA’s planetary science budget, in contrast, fared slightly better in last year’s budget, with about $60 million more between 2011 and 2014 than the division stands to receive now.

Weiler said the additional Earth science money, meanwhile, would accelerate new climate monitoring satellites and expand a recently initiated Venture-class program of modestly priced, scientist-led missions.

The 2011 budget proposal also includes money for building a duplicate of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory satellite destroyed in a February 2009 launch failure.

Weiler was not prepared, however, to answer questions about what specific new Earth science missions NASA would tackle, and when, as a result of the proposed windfall.

“All excellent questions, and we are working the details of that with our partners in the federal government, mainly the [White House] Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy,” Weiler said. “We expect to be able to get much more specific literally within weeks, not months.”

Weiler said Obama’s budget plan includes new money to identify and catalog asteroids and comets that could threaten Earth; restarts production of plutonium-238 with the U.S. Department of Energy for future deep space missions; completes preparations for a late 2011 launch of the over-budget and behind-schedule Mars Science Laboratory; and moves the U.S.-European Mars 2016 mission into formulation.


Aeronautics Research, Space Technology

NASA’s budget includes a new $1.1 billion account divided roughly 50-50 the first year between aeronautics research and cross-cutting space technology. Starting in 2012, however, the space technology work increases to $1 billion alone, while the aeronautic work would remain relatively flat.

NASA officials said the agency intends to use prize competitions, public-private partnerships and other approaches to develop next-generation technologies to make space activities more affordable for everyone.



NASA’s  Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD), which was created in response to President George W. Bush’s 2004 call for returning to the Moon, underwent the most radical change in the budget proposal.

Instead of spending $5.5 billion on continued development of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares 1 and Ares 5 rockets, Obama is canceling the Constellation program and proposing Exploration Systems receive $4.26 billion. Of that amount, $1.9 billion is earmarked for shutting down Constellation, with another $600 million for closeout costs budgeted for 2012.

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said Feb. 1 the agency intends to seek permission from Congress to use some of ESMD’s 2010 budget to pay for shutting down Constellation.

Doug Cooke, associate administrator for exploration systems, said that until Congress signs off on the cancellation, NASA will continue Constellation work covered under the 2010 budget, including completing the program’s preliminary design review in March.

“We’ll be developing a transition exercise to look at everything that’s been developed in terms of studies, design and hardware to see where it might be used in the future,” he said Feb. 2.

Not counting the Constellation closeout money, ESMD’s 2011 budget includes several new initiatives, including a Commercial Crew program expected to top $6 billion over five years; a Heavy Lift and Propulsion Technology program focused on first-stage engines and in-space propulsion; a Technology Demonstration program to develop and test breakthrough capabilities such as in-orbit refueling and propellant storage; and a revitalized Robotic Precursor program that Garver said would include a lunar lander mission.


Space Operations

NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate’s budget is set to drop 20 percent in 2011, a reflection of the space shuttle program’s coming to an end. Still, Obama is seeking $4.8 billion for space operations next year, a budget that includes additional money for the space station and to cover the cost of space shuttle missions that spill over into 2011. NASA’s space station budget is set to rise to $2.78 billion next year, a 20 percent increase, and would continue to rise under Obama’s proposal to $3.2 billion in 2014 before receding slightly.

William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for  space operations, said the new budget includes a total of $2 billion more for the space station than was included in projections accompanying NASA’s 2010 budget.

The additional funds, he said, would be used to upgrade space station ground support and on-board systems while enhancing the orbital outpost’s scientific research and technology demonstration capabilities. 


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