Special Report | NASA Budget Fundamentals Supercede Campaign Rhetoric

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WASHINGTON — NASA will continue to face a mismatch between available funding and programmatic mandates regardless of who wins the White House in November, space policy experts here said.

Republican challenger Mitt Romney has criticized the current civil space program for its lack of direction, but with the election just three weeks away has yet to articulate an alternative vision.

Romney has, however, hinted that he will not seek to boost NASA’s roughly $17 billion annual budget.

“A strong and successful NASA does not require more funding,” Romney said in a space policy white paper released Sept. 22. “It needs clearer priorities.”

That statement, analysts said, raises the question of which of NASA’s major programs can be sustained in the years ahead.

“The $17 billion-a-year question is, ‘What might those priorities be?’” said Jeff Foust, a space industry analyst with Bethesda, Md.-based Futron Corp. who independently publishes several well-read space policy blogs. Foust said he has no ties to either the Romney campaign or that of President Barack Obama.

“Any changes to NASA would have to fit within the current budget levels, since they’ve indicated that NASA doesn’t need more money,” Foust wrote in an Oct. 9 email. “What specifically would be delayed or canceled isn’t clear, but at current budget levels, something will have to give.”

Several Washington-area space policy observers said that if Obama wins re-election, NASA will simply press on with its current program: paying private operators to ship cargo and crews to the international space station while simultaneously managing development of the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. The congressionally mandated SLS and Orion are remnants of the Moon-bound Constellation program that was scuttled by Obama a year into his term. NASA science programs, meanwhile, would continue to chip in to make sure the budget-busting James Webb Space Telescope, an astrophysics flagship, gets off the ground in 2018.

Romney is being advised by some of the strongest proponents of the Constellation program but also has offered qualified support for Obama’s commercial spaceflight strategy.

“NASA will look wherever possible to the private sector to provide repeatable space-based services like human and cargo transport to and from low Earth orbit,” the Romney campaign said in its space policy white paper.

Observers have long questioned whether NASA can afford to pursue parallel human spaceflight policies, and that situation will not change if the White House changes hands in January.

“The No. 1 issue after November will be the question of how NASA can complete its long-term vision for human spaceflight, expeditions into deep space, with a budget that is insufficient for its conduct,” said Howard McCurdy, a NASA historian and professor of public affairs at American University here. McCurdy said he is neither working for nor advising either campaign.

Foust said the mismatch between budget and mandate at NASA is not likely to disappear in the next four years. “In the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, NASA was authorized to spend $19.96 billion in 2013,” he said. “The actual amount appropriated is going to be significantly less: probably no more than about $17.5 billion, and perhaps much less if sequestration or other cuts go through.”

Sequestration is an across-the-board cut in federal spending that would take effect in January if the White House and Congress fail to reach an agreement on long-term deficit reduction before the end of this year. It would skim 8.2 percent off of NASA’s top-line budget during 2013.

Romney says that upon taking office, he would initiate a comprehensive space policy review that includes the stakeholders from the civil, military and commercial space communities “to set goals, identify missions, and define the pathway forward.”

This proposed policy planning exercise has drawn comparisons to the human spaceflight policy review commissioned by Obama shortly after he took office. The 90-day review, led by former Lockheed Martin chief Norman Augustine, said NASA’s Constellation program was unsustainable at projected funding levels, a conclusion the Obama administration cited in dismantling the effort.

John Logsdon, professor emeritus at the George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs and founder of the Space Policy Institute there, said Romney might have something a bit less formal in mind with his review.

“My impression is that they are not going to commission a 90-day or six-month review,” Logsdon said in an Oct. 8 phone interview. “It’s bringing good people together and meeting for a couple of days and then coming out with a position. But that’s a guess.”

Logsdon has publicly endorsed Obama’s NASA strategy, but said he has not worked directly for the president’s re-election campaign.

Romney’s supporters in the space community include former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, who in that capacity was Constellation’s chief proponent, and Scott Pace, who served as NASA associate administrator under Griffin. Given that makeup, it is reasonable to expect that Romney’s NASA might tack back toward a Constellation-like exploration program, Logsdon said.

“All of those people are representative of a pro Vision for Space Exploration in the future,” Logsdon said. “So if they do indeed turn out to be Romney’s advisers [after the election] it’s likely that exploration will remain the guiding goal of the program.”

The Vision for Space Exploration was former president George W. Bush’s long-term strategy for NASA that spawned the Constellation program.

But given the potential cost of SLS and Orion, on which NASA is now spending nearly $3 billion a year, it is not clear “whether a Romney administration would endorse a future exploration program for which SLS is essential,” he said.

Despite the sustainability issue raised by the Augustine panel, Constellation had the political advantage of representing a guiding vision for NASA that is now lacking, said Marcia Smith, an Arlington, Va., consultant whose space policy website is closely followed inside the Beltway.

“Constellation was destination driven,” Smith said. No matter who wins the election, NASA will be vulnerable to accusations on Capitol Hill and elsewhere that it lacks focus “until there is a destination everyone embraces,” she said.

On the other hand, Smith said, Obama’s commercialization strategy, which was heavily criticized when it was unveiled in early 2009, appears to be here to stay. “Commercial cargo, barring a catastrophe, is pretty much on its way,” Smith said Oct. 9, a day before a cargo capsule launched by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. — the first contractor to begin routine space station logistics flights under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services program — was berthed with the orbital outpost.

The first commercial flight carrying astronauts to the station is tentatively slated for 2017. Outside of the commercial program, “there are not many realistic options” for ferrying U.S. personnel to and from space following the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle fleet last year, Smith said. She said she has no ties to either campaign.

The Romney campaign did not respond by press time to questions submitted by Space News regarding the challenger’s positions on civil or military space policy.