In a breach of Washington budget protocol, a senior NASA official recently publicly divulged that the U.S. space agency had asked the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for a nearly 9-percent funding increase for 2007.
NASA scrambled to reassure OMB officials that the public release of the sensitive budget information was unintentional, not a deliberate leak meant to pressure the White House to seek a big increase for the space agency even as it asks most other non-defense agencies to make do with flat or declining budgets.
The disclosure by NASA’s Chief Financial Officer, Gwendolyn Sykes, occurred at a public meeting of the NASA Advisory Council held here Nov. 30. Sykes’ presentation materials, which were made available to anyone attending the public meeting, included a chart detailing NASA request that OMB include $17.89 billion for the space agency in the 2007 budget the White House is due to send Congress in February.
The annual White House budget request is strictly embargoed until its release. The initial spending requests agencies submit to OMB often change substantially by the time the president sends his budget to Congress and are never meant to see the light of day.
In fact, such internal documents are considered so closely held that the Columbia Accident Investigation Board ultimately was denied its request to see NASA’s past budget submissions to OMB. The board had hoped those documents show whether the agency had asked for more money for the shuttle in the years leading up to the February 2003, but White House budget officials turned them down.
NASA declined to discuss Sykes’ slip or make the chief financial officer available for an interview. NASA spokesman Dean Acosta said the agency would not comment on any matter relating to the 2007 budget request still in formulation.
But a NASA Headquarters official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter said the agency was deeply embarrassed by the breach of budgetary protocol.
“There is no question that this shouldn’t have been handed out,” the official said, adding that OMB had not signed off on the nearly 9-percent increase and was not expected to.
President George W. Bush’s first budget request to Congress after unveiling his Vision for Space Exploration in January 2004 included a 5.6 percent increase for NASA that Congress ultimately approved. Under the five-year budget plan approved that year, NASA was scheduled to receive similar increases in 2006 and 2007 before its budget leveled off at $18 billion in 2008.
But by the time Bush sent his 2006 request to Congress in February 2005, the outlook for NASA was not so rosy. Bush requested only a 2.4 percent increase for NASA this year and forecast increases of only two to three percent for each of the next four years, putting NASA’s budget on track to break $18 billion in 2010.
NASA’s submission to OMB, at least the one mistakenly released by Sykes, would put the space agency within striking distance of the $18 billion mark in 2007.
The $17.89 billion NASA submitted to OMB would be a $1.44 billion increase over the $16.45 billion budget the agency received in the recently enacted 2006 spending bill, which included big increases for both space operations and exploration systems and big cuts for aeronautics. In contrast, the five-year budget NASA released earlier this year forecast an increase of just 3 percent for 2007, or $16.93 billion.
Agencies often ask OMB for more money than they expect to make it into the president’s final budget request. Additionally, agencies and OMB typically work through wide range of budget scenarios before settling on the final request. As a case in point, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin sent a letter to OMB Director Josh Bolton in mid-November saying that the agency had also prepared an “in guide” budget that keeps overall spending lower in part by holding science spending flat at the 2006 level for the next five years.
However, sources who closely follow the NASA budget process said the agency probably overreached when they asked OMB to seek a nearly 9-percent raise for NASA in the current budget climate.
Some of these same sources said NASA’s raw requests provide revealing glimpses of the budget quandary the agency finds itself in as it tries to reconcile flying the space shuttle until 2010 in order to complete the international space station with its simultaneous effort to field the multi billion dollar Crew Exploration Vehicle just two years later in 2012.
NASA revealed this year that the space shuttle program needs an additional $3 billion to $5 billion to keep the in service until 2010. At the same time, NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate also is looking for more money to accelerate development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle.
Under the $17.89 billion spending plan NASA submitted to OMB, spending on the space shuttle and international space station programs would go up 10 percent in 2007 to $7.228 billion While exploration systems would get an 18.9 percent increase, or $3.839 billion for 2007.
If the White House were to okay the $17.89 billion plan, spending on space science and environmental satellites would go up 6.6 percent in 2007 to over $5.6 billion .
But even under the $17.89 billion plan, aeronautics would be a big loser. Its budget drop 14 percent to $694 million, a figure sure to further anger aeronautics boosters who rose up in loud protest when NASA announced earlier this year that aeronautics spending would steadily decline through the end of the decade.