NASA’s $21 billion budget request: fair and balanced?



Welcome to the perpetual numbers game in Washington, D.C.

The White House released its fiscal year 2020 budget request for the government on Tuesday. In a message to employees that day, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said the “2020 NASA budget is one of the strongest on record for our storied agency. At $21 billion, this budget represents a nearly 6 percent increase over last year’s request and comes at a time of constrained resources across the federal government, and is a huge vote of confidence for all of your hard work and dedication. We will go to the Moon in the next decade with innovative, new technologies and systems to explore more locations across the lunar surface than ever before. This time, when we go to the Moon, we will stay. We will use what we learn as we move forward to the Moon to take the next giant leap – sending astronauts to Mars.”

As noted by Marcia Smith, the most astute space policy analyst I know, “It is just a request.” That is, it’s not a budget. “Congress will decide how much money to allocate to the government’s various discretionary functions over the course of the next many months.  Rumors are that the proposal is to increase funding for defense and cut non-defense spending commensurately, which as everyone knows is a non-starter,” Smith says.  “It was dead-on-arrival when Trump proposed essentially the same thing two years ago when Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress, never mind now when Democrats control the House.  It seems that this year’s budget debate will follow a familiar trajectory especially since they once again must decide whether to abide by the budget caps set in the 2011 Budget Control Act (they only did once, in FY2013) and raise the debt limit, which was breached last week.  Another déjà vu moment.”

(And speaking of déjà vu, the NASA budget request includes $109 million for “a Mars sample return mission.” NASA officials have previously proclaimed that the agency would develop such a mission, but funding did not materialize. I’ll blog about this subject later.)

This is from the White House Office of Management and Budget’s  2020 “funding highlights”:

  • “The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is responsible for leading an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and bring new knowledge and opportunities back to Earth.
  • The Budget takes steps to achieve lunar exploration goals sooner, improve sustainability of NASA’s exploration campaign, and increase the use of commercial partnerships and other procurement models to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of NASA programs.”
  • “The Budget includes $363 million to support commercial development of a large lunar lander that can initially carry cargo and later astronauts to the surface of the Moon.”
  • “The Budget focuses funding for the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, a heavy-lift expendable launch vehicle, to ensure the rocket is operational in the early 2020s when it will be needed to carry astronauts to the vicinity of the Moon.” (Note: I have no idea what “focuses funding” means. See below.)
  • “The Budget requests $21 billion for NASA, a $283 million or 1.4-percent increase from the 2019 estimate.” (Note: that amount is about a half a billion dollars less than what was actually appropriated for NASA in this fiscal year.)

As to White House priorities, ranking human space flight over other important research and development endeavors does not sit well with House Science, Space, and Technology Committee chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), whose committee has authorizing jurisdiction over NASA. On March 11, she had this to say about the budget request: “President Trump and his Administration have once again rejected reality with this FY20 budget request. This request proposes unreasonably deep cuts to many of the nation’s federal science agencies” – NOT including NASA, I will note. “This proposal is simply absurd and shows a complete disregard for the importance of civilian R&D and science and technology programs. If the President would like Congress to take his request seriously, he should make an effort to work together to craft a meaningful budget proposal.”

It does not sit well with me, either. I am a part-time consultant to NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO), tasked with finding, tracking, and characterizing asteroids and identifying any that might pose a risk of impact with Earth. NASA’s fiscal year 2019 budget for the PDCO is, last I knew, $160 million. At $200 million a year, the PDCO likely could fund building and launching a space-based near-Earth object survey telescope, a project that the community of researchers who find, track, and study asteroids has identified as a top science priority for years. (No one asked me to write this post.)

Eric Berger wrote for Ars Technica on March 11, “Two sources familiar with the thinking of Vice President Mike Pence—who leads US space policy—have said he is frustrated with the slow pace of the nation’s efforts to send humans to the Moon. In particular, he is growing tired of delays with NASA’s Space Launch System rocket” (SLS). The launch is not likely to occur before 2021, if then.

The budget request for NASA in 2020 proposes cutting SLS funding (now about $2 billion a year) by 17 percent.

In 2014, the cost estimate for SLS was $9.7 billion, with first launch proposed for 2018. By 2018, NASA had spent about $11.9 billion on SLS, and it has yet to commit to a first-launch date.

In testimony today to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee (which has authorizing jurisdiction over NASA), NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said he wants to launch NASA’s so-called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) in June 2020, on a “commercial rocket.” The SLS was intended to be the launch vehicle for EM-1, which would carry the Orion crew capsule – without crew – and a European-built service module into lunar orbit. (As of 2017, the cost estimate for Orion was $6.6 billion.)

Committee chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) asked what that commercial rocket might be. Bridenstine said “no rocket exists” as yet and then described a scheme that would require three rocket launches to accomplish EM-1. When Wicker asked how NASA was going to pay for this scheme, Bridenstine said NASA “may need some help from Congress.”

My thinking is that what he meant by “help” is “more money.” So, if Bridenstine’s proposal comes to fruition, then NASA would pay for three launches to execute EM-1 (cost TBD) and continue to fund the development of SLS – now funded at about $2 billion a year.

(Just FYI, NASA’s prime contractors for EM-1 are Aerojet Rocketdyne, Boeing, Jacobs, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman.)

Since the Reagan administration, NASA has been promising to send people back to the Moon and on to Mars. Needed funding has not materialized. At least since the George W. Bush administration, NASA has been promising to conduct a “sustainable” Moon-Mars exploration program. In his testimony today, Bridenstine said, “We are working on a sustainable campaign of exploration, transitioning the International Space Station (ISS), returning humans to the surface of the Moon and lunar orbit, where we will build the systems, deep space infrastructure, and operational capabilities to expand human presence beyond the Earth-Moon system, eventually embarking on human missions to Mars and other destinations.”

(My interpretation of what NASA officials have meant by “sustainable” is not “environmentally sustainable” or even “economically sustainable” but “fiscally/politically sustainable.” In 2007, the late great Molly Macauley – an expert on the economics of space exploration and development – and I submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation to conduct a study of “Sustainability, a Cosmocentric Ethic, and the Science of Exploration: Framing Future Public Discourse.” It was not funded. We had previously discussed this topic with a NASA planning official – no interest there, either.)

Bridenstine said one step toward accomplishing these goals is for NASA to enter more partnerships with “U.S. commercial companies.” Just a note here: in the space community, “commercial” is an abused term.  The dictionary defines “commercial” as “able to yield or make a profit.” Therefore all companies and corporations are “commercial” – that is, for-profit. While NASA may have changed the way it contracts with companies, those companies have always been “commercial,” even in the days of Apollo and the Space Shuttle. Bridenstine claimed these partnerships would help NASA drive down costs and speed up activity. We’ll see.

Bridenstine said NASA plans for the International Space Station (ISS) to be “completely commercialized” by 2025. Earlier NASA had said it would cease “direct funding” for the ISS in 2025. Now NASA says it will “transition” the ISS to a commercialized facility by 2025. If this actually does come to pass, NASA will still be funding the ISS, if not “directly,” by paying launch companies to fly people and supplies to the ISS and paying other companies to add, replace, or repair equipment and supply power, water, food, and other necessities. Just FYI, NASA’s 2018 budget included $5 billion for “space operations,” which covers the ISS and other crewed flight activities.

NASA has invested at least $100 billion in the ISS over the past 18 years. According to Bridenstine, NASA provides about 77 percent of funding for the U.S. segment of the ISS, in which Canada, Japan, and the European Space Agency are partners.

Meanwhile, at the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference and music festival in Austin, Texas, this week, the Aerospace Industries Association publicized its “vision” of what the aerospace and defense industry might look like in 2050: “morning commutes via flying air taxi, supersonic business travel between continents, and an emerging market for space-based research and manufacturing.”

I find it depressing that what began as a hipster new-music showcase, designed to showcase Austin’s talent, has evolved to showcase Big Business and government as well. (You can read about the origin and evolution of SXSW here.) Sponsors of SXSW 2019 include Capital One, Mercedes Benz, Bud Light, and Uber (which is about to go public and estimated to be worth billions).

Two of SXSW 2019’s “featured sessions” are NASA shows. One, “The legacy of Apollo and the next giant leap,” features former Apollo-era NASA flight director Gerry Griffin, NASA Johnson Space Center deputy director Vanessa Wyche, and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Bobak Ferdowski talking about “the future of human space exploration.” The other, “Shooting stars: how NASA works with film and TV,” features NASA’s arts and entertainment liaison Bert Ulrich, NASA JPL public affairs officer Veronica McGregor, NASA JPL social media expert Stephanie Smith, and NASA JPL visual artist Joby Harris.

I don’t see NASA on this year’s list of exhibitors, but I do see the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and the National Science Foundation. Huh.

More later on Mars sample return.