Washington — By the time NASA unveiled its 2008 budget request Feb. 5, the 600-page document — the product of months of negotiations with the White House — was already outdated.
Several days earlier, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a stripped-down spending measure denying NASA and many other federal agencies a raise for 2007. For NASA, that means making due with $16.2 billion — a half-billion dollars short of what the agency had been expecting.
Facing a flat budget for the first time since U.S. President George W. Bush called three years ago for retiring the space shuttle in 2010 and building new ships to return to the Moon, NASA finds itself facing tough choices with little room to maneuver.
NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, addressing a National Space Club luncheon two days after his agency’s 2008 budget request was sent to Congress, made clear that the choices NASA makes this year would ripple through 2008 and beyond.
“Now, we all know that the elephant in the room is the potential impact that the House-passed [fiscal year] 2007 appropriation will have on Orion and Ares development,” Griffin said, referring to the new Crew Exploration Vehicle and its launcher, respectively. “While we have made significant progress this past year, a smaller appropriation clearly means that we must slow our pace, in accordance with our go-as-you-pay strategy. Quite simply, less funding than in the original [2007 budget] request means that there will be impacts to people, projects and programs.”
Griffin took office two years ago determined to field Orion and Ares as soon as 2011, but by last fall budget realities had forced the hard-charging NASA chief to concede that the best the agency could do was meet the White House-mandated date of no later than 2014.
“That date is now in jeopardy,” Griffin said Feb. 7.
Griffin said delaying the introduction of Orion and Ares beyond 2014 not only puts at risk the agency’s ability to make a smooth transition from shuttle to the new vehicles; it also threatens to extend the United States’ dependence on other nations for utilizing the international space station. While NASA is spending $500 million to subsidize development of U.S. commercial alternatives to Russian, European and planned Japanese cargo ships, Griffin said there is no guarantee the investment will pay off.
NASA built its 2008 budget request around the assumption that it would get roughly the funding it requested for 2007. Griffin told the National Space Club that if NASA ends up with a flat 2007 budget as now expected, he would update Congress on the near- and long-term effects on the agency’s programs, projects and people.
If the Senate passes House Resolution 20 by Feb. 15 as expected, then NASA would have until mid-March to lay out how it intends to get through the year with a flat budget.
That operating plan, more than the agency’s 2008 budget request, will detail where NASA is heading next year and beyond, according to John Logsdon, executive director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute here and an advisor to the U.S. space agency.
“Clearly NASA is scrambling to figure out alternative scenarios if they are at the $16.2 [billion] level, which seems very likely, so this budget isn’t real,” Logsdon said of NASA’s 2008 request. “The budget that’s real is the ’07 operating plan and its impact on a kind of reconfigured ’08 budget.”
A congressional source said NASA is far from alone in this regard. Federal agencies that saw their 2007 budget requests set aside when the new Congress decided to pass a broad spending resolution rather than tackle a heap of unfinished bills likely will have to substantially revise their 2008 requests once they get their final 2007 figures, the congressional source said.
This year’s unusual budget situation also presents political challenges for NASA, according to Logsdon. “The whole budget is unfortunately vulnerable because if the ’07 mark is $16.2 [billion] then the ’08 proposal is a 6 percent increase and that’s a very high increase,” Logsdon said.
Griffin and other NASA officials made no mention of that fact in rolling out the 2008 budget, casting it instead as a 3.1 percent increase over the agency’s 2007 request — a document that now is all but meaningless.
While NASA has not been shy about saying flat funding this year could wreck the agency’s plans for fielding Orion and Ares by 2014 — an assertion that has met with some skepticism on Capitol Hill — Griffin struck a somewhat more conciliatory tone at the National Space Club luncheon. “I’m sure the Congress is as frustrated as I am frankly that they had to provide an ’07 continuing resolution rather than pass an ’07 budget. I’m sure that was not what they wanted to do,” Griffin said in response to a question from the audience.
“If we look at it in the large, I have to be honest, a few percent cut in one year does not destroy our program. It’s a problem. I’m paid to solve problems. I will solve this one the best I can within the constraints provided,” Griffin said. “I would like to have more money rather than less and every cut hurts. But looked at in the large … we are doing superbly,” he said.
Logsdon called the 2008 request “a status quo budget” that makes no strategic departures from the five-year plan outlined in the agency’s 2007 request: science and aeronautics continue to be held to less-than-the-rate-of-inflation growth through the end of the decade while nearly all new money is combined with the predicted savings from ramping down space shuttle to fund development of Orion and Ares. Funding for the systems NASA would need to reach the Moon is beyond the budget plan’s five-year horizon.
“There’s no money in this budget for sending people to the Moon. This is a budget for building a system to replace shuttle,” Logsdon said.
Other highlights of the 2008 request include:
NASA has budgeted only $1.2 billion of the $2.1 billion it anticipates needing between 2008 and 2012 for crew and cargo services for the space station. NASA has challenged the Space Operations and Exploration Systems mission directorate to find the additional $900 million. Doug Cooke, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for exploration systems, said the Lunar Precursor Robotics Program, which aims to follow the 2008 Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission with a 2011 lander mission, is one possible bill payer. NASA has budgeted $1.7 billion for those projects between 2008 and 2012.
The $277 million requested for the Hubble Space Telescope is not enough to cover its planned September 2008 servicing by the crew of Space Shuttle Atlantis. Rick Howard, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, said the agency’s budget request assumed the shuttle mission would launch in May 2008. Keeping the team together the additional five months will cost $40 million to $50 million more than currently budgeted, he said. Meanwhile, NASA is still evaluating whether to retire Atlantis after the mission or keep it in service for one more flight.
Heeding the guidance of the National Academy of Science’s newly published 10-year plan for Earth science, NASA has committed to launching the first Global Precipitation Measurement mission satellite in 2013, with a second satellite to follow a year later. NASA is seeking $90 million for the project for 2008, $65 million more than previously planned. Griffin is going to Japan in March to discuss that nation’s participation in the international project.
NASA plans to spend $351 million between 2008 and 2012 to take advantage of science opportunities on NASA and international missions to the Moon.