— NASA officials are working feverishly to make some tough new spending choices for 2007 in response to election-related developments that will hold its budget for the next year to 2006 spending levels.
Sources familiar with NASA’s internal budget deliberations said all parts of the agency would be forced to “tighten their belts” this year if Congress, as the newly installed Democratic leadership has promised, approves a measure in coming weeks to continue funding federal agencies at their 2006 budget levels rather than try to complete work on nearly a dozen unfinished spending bills.
For NASA, that means agency officials can forget about receiving the roughly $16.7 billion the White House sought for the space program for 2007 and must instead prepare to weather the year with a budget closer to $16.2 billion.
Details of the proposed spending resolution are still being worked out and NASA does not expect to know before the end of January exactly how much money it will get for 2007 or what flexibility it will have in deciding how to spend it.
NASA’s legislative affairs officials, in a Dec. 20 memorandum widely circulated inside the agency, said they had been told by congressional staff that NASA should expect to get around $16.273 billion, or about $520 million less than its 2007 request.
The memo said NASA’s Science and Aeronautics mission directorates would have to “adjust priorities … to manage the impact” of the agency being denied a raise for the year, but said “the majority of this shortfall” would be felt by the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, which had been counting on a big raise to keep the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares 1 rocket on track to enter service by 2014.
NASA’s 2007 budget request, while now obsolete, had singled out Exploration Systems for a bigger increase than any other part of the agency. NASA had planned to increase Exploration Systems’ $3 billion budget by $900 million this year, covering the 30-percent raise by combining an anticipated top-level increase with fairly substantial one-time reductions in space shuttle and aeronautics spending.
NASA might still be able to take some surplus money from shuttle and elsewhere this year and give it to Exploration Systems, but sources familiar with NASA’s internal budget deliberations said the Orion and Ares programs are still facing a shortfall of $300 million to $500 million unless more money can be found.
With NASA sensitive to the political ramifications of raiding science and aeronautics accounts to pay for Orion and Ares, sources familiar with the budget deliberations said Exploration Systems is contemplating deep internal cuts to cover the anticipated shortfall.
NASA officials said priority is being given to keeping Orion and Ares on track. The agency — and many members of Congress — would like to field the new space transportation system as soon after the space shuttle’s 2010 retirement as possible but no later than the 2014 deadline set by the White House. NASA awarded a $3.9 billion Orion prime contract to Lockheed Martin last year, put Alliant Techsystems and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne under contract for the Ares 1 main stage and engines, and issued a draft request for proposals Jan. 4 for an Ares 1 upper-stage production contract it plans to award in August.
Exploration Systems’ $1.3 billion research and technology account already was facing $400 million in cuts this year to fund the big ramp up in Orion and Ares spending. With few other places to look for the kind of money Orion and Ares needs, sources said, NASA is giving serious consideration to scaling back its lunar robotic exploration program.
According to more than one source, NASA already has decided internally that it cannot afford to get started on any robotic lunar missions beyond the $700 million Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter already in development for a late 2008 launch. In the near term, that would mean scrapping plans to begin development on a mid-sized robotic lunar lander that the Laurel, Md.-based Applied Physics Laboratory had been selected to build under direction from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.
“We’re going to kill everything except the orbiter,” said a NASA official, who asked not to be identified because the agency has not finalized its budget plans for the year. “The only pot of money that doesn’t directly delay 2014 is the robotics program.”
Another NASA official, however, cautioned that no final decisions had been made and that it was too early to single out any particular program as likely to bare the brunt of the budget shortfall.
“All the directorates and mission support offices across the agency will be tightening their belts,” this official told Space News. “Everything is on the table.”
Still, another source following the budget situation said some programs are more on the table than others.
“All the big problems are in [the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate],” said the source. “That’s where all the new starts are. NASA’s also being told by the Hill they can’t raid science or aeronautics.”
Although not immune from the types of challenges Exploration Systems faces, the budget pressure is expected to be less severe for NASA aeronautics and science officials because they have known for more than a year that they will be working with essentially flat budgets for the foreseeable future.
Still, the Science Mission Directorate had been counting on a slight increase in its $5.2 billion budget to help pay for a ramp-up in spending on the James Webb Space Telescope program and to cover previously unbudgeted bills for a recently approved Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission and money needed as a result of the agency’s decision last year to finish the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy.
The Aeronautics Mission Directorate, which thanks to supportive lawmakers got substantially more money for 2006 than NASA requested, was already expecting a sizeable decrease for 2007. Whether aeronautics will remain at its current level of $884 million, drop to $724 million as previously planned, or be funded at some other level is not yet clear, sources said. Further complicating matters, NASA gave lawmakers a heads up last year that it would be changing the way it accounts for overhead at its aeronautics-focused field centers, making it appear that aeronautics programs are being cut.