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Orion on parachutes
The final fiscal year 2015 spending bill increased funding for Orion, on the heels of its successful December 5 test flight (above), and for the SLS heavy-lift rocket. (credit: US Navy)

Of budgets past and future

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Another year’s worth of battles over the budget is finally over. On Saturday night, the Senate passed an omnibus spending bill that funds most of the federal government for the rest of fiscal year 2015, two days after the House narrowly approved the bill. (The bill funds the Department of Homeland Security only through February, making it a combination of a continuing resolution, or CR, and omnibus: a “cromnibus.”)

“In terms of the technical work, I think we’ve really probably moved off of December 2017,” Gerstenmaier said of SLS, “so I don’t think funding will pull us back to that date.”

NASA, in the end, did relatively well. The omnibus bill gives the agency $18 billion for 2015, up from the $17.65 billion it received in 2014 and also the original 2015 request of $17.46 billion. Several major agency programs received substantial increases over the original request, from exploration to planetary science.

On the whole, that looks like good news for NASA. But that increase may mask other issues for the space agency, including delays with one of its major programs that no amount of additional money can address in the near term. And the agency’s success in winning additional funding in 2015 is no guarantee of success in 2016 and beyond.

Funding SLS and Orion

Two of the programs that won significant increases over the agency’s original budget proposal are two major elements of NASA’s exploration plans: the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket. Orion will receive $1.194 billion in the bill, an increase of more than $140 million over the request, and SLS will receive $1.7 billion, an increase of nearly $320 million.

The bill also includes language about future budget submissions. NASA, the bill states, “shall provide to the Committees on Appropriations of the House of Representatives and the Senate, concurrent with the annual budget submission, a 5 year budget profile and funding projection that adheres to a 70 percent Joint Confidence Level (JCL) and is consistent with the Key Decision Point C (KDP–C) for the Space Launch System and with the future KDP–C for the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.”

That’s a reference to cost and schedule estimates NASA completed in August for the SLS, predicting, with 70-percent confidence, that the SLS will be ready for its first flight no later than November 2018 at a total development cost of no more than about $7 billion. Orion’s KDP-C review is scheduled to be done in the spring of 2015 (see “The beginning of a new era—but which one?”, The Space Review, December 8, 2014).

The bill language goes further. “That in complying with the preceding proviso NASA shall include budget profiles and funding projections that conform to the KDP–C management agreement for development completion of the Space Launch System by December 2017.”

However, at a hearing December 10 by the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, a top NASA official indicated no amount of funding would allow the SLS to be ready by the end of 2017, as previously planned. “We were holding December of 2017. I would say we’ve now moved off of that date,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations. “That’s just based on the reality of problems that have come along in the program, and some uncertainty in funding.”

The subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), asked Gerstenmaier what it would take to move SLS back to that December 2017 date. “In terms of the technical work, I think we’ve really probably moved off of December 2017,” he responded, “so I don’t think funding will pull us back to that date.”

Gerstenmaier said that NASA was now planning to have SLS ready in June or July of 2015. Ground systems would be ready at around the same time, as currently planned, although a launch readiness date for Orion for that first SLS launch won’t be known until after its KDP-C review.

“Congress has once again demonstrated support for the SLS and Orion by providing funding well above the President’s budget request in the omnibus for fiscal year 2015,” said Palazzo.

He noted that all three systems—SLS, Orion, and ground systems—didn’t need to all be ready at the same time. “They don’t need to sync up at exactly the same time,” he said, noting that, for example, SLS could press ahead with work on the second vehicle if the first one is done before other elements are ready. “If we put that extra constraint in where I have to sync these programs up and match all these schedules, I think that puts another burden in that can make inefficiencies.”

Some members of the committee, though, were critical of what they believed were schedule slips caused by the administration’s unwillingness to seek sufficient funding for SLS and Orion.

“The administration has consistently requested large reductions for these programs, despite the insistence of Congress that they be priorities,” said subcommittee chairman Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS) in his opening statement. “Congress has once again demonstrated support for the SLS and Orion by providing funding well above the President’s budget request in the omnibus for fiscal year 2015.”

Palazzo asked Gerstenmaier about a $400-million shortfall in the SLS program reported by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in a July report that argued that a schedule slip for SLS—from the December 2017 date—was likely given the program’s budget. Gerstenmaier said that specific risk about the $400-million shortfall has largely been retired with the additional funding the program received for both fiscal years 2014 and 2015.

“If you had come to us for additional funding a year or two years ago, would you have been able to mitigate the risk, or buy down the technical risk, or would we be having the same conversation that the test is going to slip to the right regardless of the amount of funding that we may have been able to appropriate to the program?” asked Palazzo.

“That’s a very difficult question to answer,” Gerstenmaier responded, saying that he took a broad view of all of NASA’s human spaceflight activities, including not just SLS and Orion but also the International Space Station and commercial crew and cargo programs. “I have to look at a balancing across those programs. I can’t optimally fund any one of those programs.”

A GAO official at the hearing concurred with Gerstenmaier’s assessment about the ability to accelerate SLS’s development. “Just putting in money now won’t help you get there any quicker,” said Cristina Chaplain, director of acquisition and sourcing management.

Those explanations did not mollify some members of the committee. Palazzo expressed frustration that a third invited witness, NASA chief financial officer David Radzanowski, declined to attend the hearing or send another person from his office to discuss NASA budgets and policy. “The administration refused to make him available,” Palazzo said at the hearing.

Other budget issues

SLS and Orion were not the only programs at NASA to win budget increases. NASA’s planetary science program received nearly $1.438 billion in the omnibus bill, up from $1.28 billion in the administration’s request. That increase includes $100 million for early development work on a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, compared to $15 million in the administration’s request.

The Planetary Society, which had advocated for increasing the agency’s planetary science budget, celebrated the omnibus bill. “For three years in a row, the White House has requested cuts to NASA’s Planetary Science Division,” said the society’s CEO, Bill Nye, in a statement. “And for three years in a row now, Congress has soundly rejected those cuts.”

NASA’s astrophysics program, which requested $607 million in the original request, received nearly $685 million in the omnibus bill. That amount includes $70 million to continue operations of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), an airborne observatory that was all but cancelled in the administration’s request (see “Aborted takeoff”, The Space Review, March 17, 2014).

“For three years in a row, the White House has requested cuts to NASA’s Planetary Science Division,” said Nye. “And for three years in a row now, Congress has soundly rejected those cuts.”

NASA’s commercial crew program fell short of its requested budget, but the $805 million it did receive (versus the $848 million requested) was still more than the program had received in previous years. Advocates of the program won a victory, though: the bill does not include language that was in the report accompanying the Senate version of the bill that would have required “certified cost and pricing data” from companies participating in the commercial crew program, which program supporters said would have added unnecessary and unreasonable costs to the program.

One program that was a loser in the budget was NASA’s space technology program. While NASA requested $705.5 million for the program in its 2015 budget request, the omnibus bill provides $596 million. Neither the bill nor the accompanying report provided a reason for the cut, or direction on how it should be applied to its various projects. (NASA’s aeronautics program, meanwhile, received a $100-million increase to $651 million, with direction to apply the increase proportionally among its projects.)

Overall, though, it’s hard to argue against the conclusion that NASA did quite well in 2015: an increase over both its 2014 budget and its proposed 2015 budget; both, in addition, are well above the sequestration-scarred 2013 budget of less than $17 billion.

But, as the statement normally associated with investments goes, past results do not guarantee future performance. NASA is working on its fiscal year 2016 budget request with the White House, due for release in February. The 2015 budget proposal included a five-year runout of future budgets that projected a $17.6 billion NASA budget in 2016, but that projection was caveated with the disclaimer “notional.” In other words, don’t put too much weight on that figure.

Whatever that request turns out to be, it’ll face a different Congressional environment. In November’s elections, Republicans increased their majority in the House of Representatives and took control of the Senate. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), a patron of at least some NASA programs, will move from being chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee to its ranking member, with Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) slated to chair the committee. (Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), who had been ranking member of the committee and a close partner with Mikulski on NASA issues, is instead taking over the Senate Banking Committee.)

In the House, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) will take over the Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, whose jurisdiction includes NASA. Culberson, succeeding the retiring Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), has been a vigorous supporter of many NASA programs, and perhaps best known as the biggest advocate in Congress of a Europa mission, securing funding for it in 2015 and previous years.

A two-year budget deal that helped reduce some of the effects of budget sequestration also expires after 2015, meaning the fiscal year 2016 budgets may face new pressures to cut spending. That could slow any future growth in NASA’s budgets or push for cuts, pitting science versus exploration.

In NASA’s fiscal year 2011 budget request, the agency projected receiving $21 billion in 2015, $3 billion more than it actually received.

Those long-term, if notional, increases in NASA’s budget included in the 2015 budget request—out to nearly $18.2 billion by fiscal year 2019—should also be taken with caution for other reasons. The 2017 budget will be the last prepared by the Obama Administration. A new president will take over the budgets beyond then, and he or she may have very different opinions about how much to spend on NASA, and on what programs.

There are also the lessons of history. One of the largely forgotten aspects of the Obama Administration’s fiscal year 2011 budget request—the one best known for seeking the cancellation of the Constellation Program—was that it included steady increases in NASA’s budget, starting with the $19 billion requested for 2011 (itself $1 billion more than what NASA will get for 2015.) Those budgets gradually rose to, in the final year of the five-year budget projection, to nearly $21 billion for 2015.

Today, $21 billion for NASA seems like a fantasy, and perhaps it was even then. But times changed, politics changed, and priorities changed, and instead of getting $21 billion, NASA considers itself fortunate to get $18 billion for 2015. Will even that amount be envied come 2019?