NASA’s $21 billion budget proposal takes aim at the status quo

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This article originally appeared in the March 25, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Budget proposals are, at their highest level, expressions of policy. While the focus is on the specific dollar values allocated (or not allocated, as the case may be) to specific programs, the decisions on what gets funded, and by how much, generally reflects an overall policy that can persist even after Congress revises the overall numbers.

When the White House released its fiscal year 2020 budget request for NASA March 11, initial attention turned to the overall funding level of $21.02 billion, about $480 million less than what the agency received in the final fiscal year 2019 appropriations bill signed into law less than a month earlier. At first glance, the budget didn’t appear to offer much in the way of new initiatives. Indeed, there was a sense of déjà vu, right down to the same programs, from education to Earth science, once again targeted for cancellation.

On closer inspection, though, there is something new in the budget request. NASA, or at least the White House, is showing growing impatience with the delays and cost growth in some of its biggest missions. That theme is clear in the proposals to rein in the Space Launch System, but also in its approach to science program.

The core problem

One of the biggest changes in the budget proposal involved the SLS. Besides cutting funding for the program by $375 million, or 17 percent, from 2019, the proposal sought to defer work on the Block 1B version of the rocket, which will replace its existing upper stage with the more powerful Exploration Upper Stage (EUS).

This, in turn, affects plans for developing NASA’s lunar Gateway. The agency originally proposed launching Gateway modules by “co-manifesting” them on SLS launches of the Orion spacecraft, taking advantage of the extra payload capacity of the SLS Block 1B. Instead, NASA will launch those elements on commercial rockets. And, for good measure, NASA moved the only non-exploration payload on the books for SLS, the Europa Clipper mission, to a commercial rocket, saying such a move “would save over $700 million.”

NASA defended the decision by arguing that waiting for SLS Block 1B would delay the overall exploration program. “We won’t need EUS for a while,” said Andrew Hunter, NASA’s deputy chief financial officer, in a call with reporters. “We can get to the lunar surface fastest in this way.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine made no mention of the changes to SLS when he formally rolled out the budget proposal in a March 11 speech at the Kennedy Space Center. Instead, he offered a surprise two days later at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, when asked by the committee’s chairman, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), about delays to the first SLS launch, called Exploration Mission (EM) 1.

“SLS is struggling to meet its schedule,” he said, which called for flying EM-1 by the middle of 2020. That’s led to the consideration of alternatives, he revealed. “There are opportunities to utilize commercial capabilities to put the Orion crew capsule and the European service module in orbit around the moon by June of 2020.”

The problems with SLS are with the development of the core section of the rocket, a modified shuttle external tank with a new engine section that contains four RS-25 engines that previously powered shuttle orbiters. Previous reports, including one by the agency’s own inspector general in October, warned of problems with the core stage that would result in further delays.

Bridenstine argued that, with the continuing problems with SLS, it was important to stick to the schedule and fly EM-1 in the middle of 2020 — a date that already represented years of delays — even if that involved changing launch vehicles. “If we tell you and others that we’re going to launch in June of 2020 around the moon, which is what EM-1 is, I think we should launch around the moon in June of 2020, and I think it can be done,” he said.

He said the agency is performing a study to look at replacing SLS with two commercial launch vehicles, one carrying Orion and the other an upper stage, docking the two elements in Earth orbit before going off to the moon. That study, he said, would be completed in just a few weeks.

Workers move the SLS liquid hydrogen tank test article at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in December. SLS is struggling to meet a mid-2020 schedule for launching the EM-1 mission. Credit: NASA Michoud Assembly Facility
Workers move the SLS liquid hydrogen tank test article at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in December. SLS is struggling to meet a mid-2020 schedule for launching the EM-1 mission. Credit: NASA Michoud Assembly Facility

The budget proposal, he acknowledged, said nothing about those plans. “Why is that not in the president’s budget request? Because we learned last week that those [SLS] milestones are not going to be achievable,” he said at a March 14 Space Transportation Association luncheon.

Bridenstine said that even if NASA decided to go ahead with the alternative plan for EM-1, it was not abandoning SLS. “This is a fix to a problem,” he said at the luncheon. “This is not the solution. This is not sustainable.”

That desire for urgency, one strong enough to at least consider temporarily setting aside one of the cornerstones of NASA’s exploration plans, also exists in the White House. “We need to keep our schedule commitments,” said Scott Pace, executive secretary of the National Space Council, during a March 21 speech at the American Astronautical Society’s Goddard Memorial Symposium.

“We want to return to the lunar surface and do so soon,” he said. “We really dare not waste the window we have before us.”

Flagship fatigue

Other parts of the budget dealt with some high profile, but troubled, science missions. The budget proposal keeps James Webb Space Telescope on schedule for a launch in March 2021, the date set last June after the latest independent review of the program’s cost and schedule problems.

However, it includes no funding for the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), the next large flagship astrophysics missions. NASA’s detailed budget proposal, released March 18, blamed “its significant cost and higher priorities within NASA, including completing the delayed James Webb Space Telescope,” as the reason for canceling it.

Last year’s budget proposal similarly targeted WFIRST for cancellation, but Congress stepped in and funded the program. Astronomers hope the same thing happens again this year. “When we can imagine very exciting, very bold programs, and we can make the case for how interesting and exciting they are, then I think the funding will materialize,” said Adam Reiss, an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University who won the Nobel Prize in Physics, said at the Goddard Symposium.

That detailed budget proposal also revealed, for the first time, cost overruns with the next big planetary science mission, the Mars 2020 rover. Lori Glaze, acting director of NASA’s planetary science division, acknowledged the problem during a town hall meeting March 18 at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas, saying the overrun fell below a 15 percent threshold that would require a formal replan of the mission.

Glaze said NASA will look within the mission itself, and then the overall Mars program, for ways to cover the overrun. The goal, she told a packed ballroom of planetary scientists, is to have “the smallest impact possible to the overall planetary portfolio.”

Those problems with Mars 2020, linked to two instruments and the rover’s sample caching system, have made NASA more sensitive to cost growth on another large mission. NASA announced March 5 it was removing a magnetometer instrument called ICEMAG from Europa Clipper because of what Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, called “continued, significant cost growth and remaining high cost risk.”

Glaze said later that decision was based on lessons learned from Mars 2020. “Part of what we’re trying to do with the process that’s being implemented on Clipper is to try and not end up in the same position,” she said.

NASA budget graphic

A former appropriator weighs in

Sitting in the front row of that town hall meeting was a man who helped accelerate development of Europa Clipper while also supporting many other NASA programs: John Culberson. Last year, he chaired the House appropriations subcommittee that funded NASA. But after losing re-election last November, he attended this year’s conference as just an interested citizen.

“I’m like a kid in a candy store,” said Culberson in an interview after the town hall. He had spent the day at the conference, peppering scientists with questions during sessions such as one on the first results from New Horizons’ flyby of the distant Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule. “This is fun for me.”

Culberson no longer has the ability to direct funding to planetary programs, SLS or other NASA projects, but he was keeping a close eye on them nonetheless. “I’m going to have to keep my hand in the program in some form or fashion,” he said.

He expected Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, to step in to protect SLS, including its use for launching Europa Clipper and a follow-on lander mission that the budget proposal does not fund. Shelby already weighed in against any proposal to move EM-1 to commercial vehicles. “While I agree that the delay in the SLS launch schedule is unacceptable, I firmly believe that SLS should launch the Orion,” he said in a March 13 statement.

“The president’s budget is just a recommendation,” Culberson noted. “I’m not concerned about it in the near term.” It’s underlying theme, though, suggests a growing impatience with the status quo that may not go away regardless of what Congress does to the proposal.