NASA budget buzzword: “flat”

It’s no big surprise: the President’s budget request for NASA in Fiscal Year 2012, unveiled today, is $18.7 billion – no more and no less than NASA’s budget for the current fiscal year.

Advocates will complain, and lobbyists are already at work asking for more. Nonetheless, $18.7 billion is a lot of money, especially in these tough times, and the aerospace community could stop whining and start adjusting.

NASA Chief Financial officer Beth Robinson reported today that NASA’s “outyear” budget projections assume no growth – a reasonable assumption. Nevertheless, advocates for various favorite programs will blitz Capitol Hill demanding more….

Today NASA also made public its new strategic plan, driven by this “vision”: “To reach new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.” Not bad, especially compared to the air-puffed visions generated by some previous agency administrations.

NASA’s FY 2012 request includes about $1.8 billion for Earth science – including climate change research, no doubt of benefit to all humankind.

It also includes $1.8 billion for work on a new heavy-lift launch vehicle – needed only for still-unaffordable human missions beyond Earth orbit – of debatable benefit to all humankind. I’d like to note that this amount is just for the coming fiscal year. Who knows how long it will take and how much it will cost and how many redesigns it will take to produce such a vehicle, while the White House, Congress, NASA, and would-be heavy-lift builders argue and haggle? (If one looks to the history of the Space Shuttle or International Space Station program for insight, the outlook is disturbing.)

Given the brief outburst of public discourse, following the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), over the need for civility in political wheeling and dealing, I’d like to think that this year’s haggling over NASA’s human space flight plans will be more more reasonable and productive than last year’s ugly and prolonged food fight.  While some of those involved in private negotiations last year have claimed their exchanges were civil, the public discourse that I observed was nasty.

I’m more realist than romantic, though, and I’m afraid we’ll be watching reruns this spring.



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