White House Makes New Earth Science Missions A High Priority in Its 2009 NASA Budget Request

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WASHINGTON — U.S. President George W. Bush is asking Congress for a downpayment on five new Earth-observing satellites but none of the additional money NASA fought for behind the scenes to speed the completion of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and the Ares 1 rocket needed to launch it.

NASA budget negotiators pressed their White House counterparts well into December to make accelerating the completion of Orion and Ares a centerpiece of Bush’s budget proposal for 2009. White House budget negotiators, however, were just as adamant that the highlight of Bush’s final budget request would be a substantial Earth Science increase, sources familiar with the annual budget deliberations said.

In the end, the $17.6 billion NASA budget request Bush sent to Congress Feb. 4 includes a 7 percent increase for Earth Science – a program that has not fared especially well under Bush – but no money to narrow the five-year gap between retiring the space shuttle and fielding the Orion capsules and Ares rockets that are the cornerstone of the U.S. plan to send astronauts to the Moon by 2020.

Aside from the extra Earth science money, Bush proposed a largely stay-the-course budget for NASA, asking Congress to increase the agency’s budget by 1.7 percent next year. Thereafter, NASA’s budget would grow by 2.4 percent a year – roughly what the White House considers the rate of inflation for science agencies like NASA – and top out at $19.35 billion in 2013, which is as far out as the five-year budget looks.

NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale praised the inflation-lagging increase as proof that Bush remains committed to the goals he set for the agency in 2004 when he called for building a successor to the space shuttle and going back to the Moon.

“This increase demonstrates the president’s commitment to funding the balanced priorities he set forth for the agency in space exploration, Earth and space science, and aeronautics research,” Dale said during a Feb. 4 press conference here announcing the budget. “We are making steady progress in achieving these goals.”

Still, Bush’s final budget request would leave NASA with about $420 million less to work with in 2009 than the White House told the agency four years ago it could expect by then.

Richard Gilbrech, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems – the part of the agency responsible for building the billions of dollars worth of hardware that will be needed to go to the Moon – told reporters Feb. 4 that the $3.5 billion allocated for his directorate for 2009 – an 11 percent increase – is enough to keep Orion and Ares on track for the March 2015 debut it has promised Congress. Gilbrech said his budget also contains additional money to honor NASA’s $500 million commitment to the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services demonstration effort despite a reduction in the program’s budget for 2008.

However, the amount of money devoted to advanced capabilities – mostly technology projects geared toward the agency’s longer-range exploration goals – would drop to $452 million next year, a roughly 30 percent cut from 2008.

Gilbrech also told reporters that no decisions would be made before the end of 2008 about proposed delays to the Ares and Orion test-flight schedules. NASA Constellation Program Manager Jeff Hanley got his wrist slapped in January for disseminating a memorandum announcing a series of budget-driven schedule slips, starting with a one-year delay in the Ares 1’s first test flight involving its full-sized booster.

Gilbrech said NASA will revisit the Ares and Orion test schedules after completing a preliminary design review of the fully integrated launcher late this year. But for now, NASA plans to stick to its plan to fly Ares 1-Y – the first flight involving the rocket’s chosen five-segment solid-rocket booster – in late 2012.

While NASA did not get the money it wanted to accelerate Orion and Ares, the White House did make a commitment to spend $910 million over six years to get started on five of the 15 Earth-observation missions identified as priorities in a 10-year plan the National Academy of Sciences put forth last year. The White House hosted a teleconference with reporters Feb. 1 to highlight the $910 million commitment.

Under Bush’s plan, NASA’s Earth Science division would spend the first $103 million of that amount in 2009 to start developing two missions: the Soil Moisture Active Passive, or SMAP, mission and ICESat-2, which is a follow-on to NASA’s 2003 Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite, or ICESat.

Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth Science division, said SMAP would be led by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and launch in 2012. ICESat-2 would be led Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., and launch in 2015. The three other missions would be selected after further evaluation of the decadal survey recommendations, he said.

The total Earth Sciences budget for 2009 would be $1.37 billion, an $87 million increase over the 2008 budget

Overall, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate is held to a 0.9 percent increase for 2009 under the president’s proposal.

Alan Stern, NASA associate administrator for science, said that of the $910 million the agency is prepared to commit to the new Earth science missions, about $540 million is new money obtained by reducing the spending outlooks for NASA’s astrophysics, heliophysics and planetary science divisions by approximately $180 million each over the five-year run out. Most of the 2009 money, he said, came out of the planetary science division, which late last year postponed its next Mars Scout mission two years to 2013 due to a conflict of interest discovered in the selection process.

Spending on robotic Mars missions would decline in 2009 and again in 2010, bottoming out around $300 million before starting to rise again. In contrast, NASA spent $635 million in 2007 and plans to spend just more than $550 million in 2008 as it brings the 2009 Mars Science Laboratory – a $1 billion rover – to completion.

Stern said NASA’s five-year budget includes seed money for a robotic Mars sample-return mission that would launch around 2020. Stern said NASA wants to undertake the mission in collaboration with international partners, but also will examine U.S.-only options should no other nation step up. Either way, Stern said, NASA is willing to spend $3 billion on Mars sample return – about $1 billion more than NASA is prepared to spend on a flagship finish to a still-to-be-determined outer planets destination that would launch in 2017. International collaboration is desired for that mission as well, Stern said.

Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said spending on Mars sample return would be under $10 million a year in the near term and focused largely on the development of so-called architecture studies sketching the broad, technical outlines of the proposed undertaking.

Stern said spending on Mars sample return would not begin in earnest until the outer planets flagship mission planed for 2017 is well on its way to the launch pad.

NASA’s Mars exploration budget drew immediate criticism from Robert Braun, an associate professor of space technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. In a letter given to Space News through an anonymous intermediary, Braun exhorts members of the Mars Exploration Program Advisory Group to take a stand against NASA’s budget plan, which he calls “clear evidence of the gutting of what the American people consider one of NASA’s most successful programs.” The advisory group is scheduled to meet Feb. 20-21 in Monrovia, Calif.

NASA’s Astrophysics budget, meanwhile, would drop 13 percent in 2009 as programs including the James Webb Space Telescope exit their peek years of development activity. Last year’s budget, however, had forecast a nearly 17 percent decline in astrophysics spending.

Heliophysics, the NASA division dedicated to studying the sun, also faces a budget cut in 2009 under the White House plan, although not as severe as it first appears. NASA’s request includes $577.3 million for Heliophysics for 2009, down from $840.9 million this year.

Most of that decrease- about $256 million of it – is due to NASA transferring financial responsibility for its Deep Space Network system of ground antennas to the Space Operations Mission Directorate. Still, the proposed budget would leave the Heliophysics program with a real cut of $7.5 million.

Other developments proposed for 2009 include starting development of the Joint Dark Energy Mission in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Energy and refocusing the Explorers program on small satellites and missions of opportunity.

Space Operations

NASA’s $5.7 billion request for Space Operations includes $2.9 billion for the space shuttle in 2009, a decline of $285 million. NASA foresees asking for roughly the same amount for 2010 – the shuttle’s last planned year of operations – and $95 million for 2011 to cover various close out costs.

William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space operations, said NASA has 12 more shuttle missions to fly before the orbiters are retired. Those missions include a service call later this year to the Hubble Space Telescope and two flights at the end of the program to deliver spare parts to the international space station.

The space station is slated to begin six-crew operations for the first time in 2009. That same year, according to Gerstenmaier, the shuttle program could shed as many as 1,000 jobs as contracts are turned off. Gerstenmaier would not say how many of those job cuts would be at Kennedy Space Center, but noted that the Florida launch facility would be busy in 2009 launching the shuttle and preparing the Ares 1-Y test flight.

Aeronautics

NASA’s Aeronautics Research budget would drop $65 million to $450 million and stay at that level through 2013.

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin is scheduled to defend the agency’s budget request Feb. 13 before the House Science and Technology Committee where Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) already has bemoaned the request as “a ‘business-as-usual’ budget” that “continues the administration’s practice of underfunding the agency relative to the missions the agency has been asked to undertake.”

Gordon’s statement cited that absence of funds to accelerate Orion as one of the budget’s shortcomings. He also expressed concern about reduced spending on aeronautics and technology development, and took issue with NASA’s proposal to fund new science initiatives by shuffling money between accounts. In response to congressional direction, NASA’s budget now is divided into seven accounts instead of the traditional three. The biggest effect of this change is that NASA’s Cross Agency Support account, which was just more than $550 million in 2008, swells to nearly $3.3 billion in 2009 as it picks up more overhead and other indirect expenses that previously had been accounted for within NASA’s mission directorate budgets. As a result of this change, comparing NASA’s 2009 request to the agency’s 2008 request would make it appear that mission directorate budgets are being cut by an average of 17 percent.