NASA’s Budget: Something’s Gotta Give

Charlie Bolden was up on the Hill a couple of times this week, testifying about NASA’s FY 2012 budget request before a Congress that still hasn’t finished work on the FY 2011 budget. That problem, non-trivial as it is, is probably less serious than the rift that has developed between Congress and the Administration about how to move forward on human spaceflight in the years ahead.

The Hill captured a portion of the hearings that captures the problem precisely:

“I am concerned that the future of our space program is in serious jeopardy,” said chairman Ralph Hall (R-Texas), noting the Obama administration’s budget requests 31 percent less funding for manned spaceflight than mandated by the NASA Authorization Act of 2010.

The request increases funding for the commercial spaceflight industry by more than $700 million, a 70 percent increase over the bill passed by Congress.

“Commercial crew was not ignored, but to be perfectly clear, it was not – and is not – Congress’ first priority,” Hall said.

“Yet the Administration’s FY2012 budget proposal completely flips the priorities of the Act, significantly increasing Commercial Crew funding while making deep cuts to the Human Exploration Capabilities accounts which Congress clearly intended to serve as our assured access to space.”

In essence, NASA sees the commercial crew program as the fastest way to close the spaceflight gap that will open once the final space shuttle mission touches down in July. The program will use existing boosters (mostly likely the Atlas V and Falcon 9) to fly new spacecraft that it expects private industry can produced relatively quickly and inexpensively. That effort will require a significant amount of money upfront if it is to close the gap. The pacing items in this effort are the spacecraft; the rockets can be human-rated much earlier, given a sufficient budget.

The Congressional approach focuses on NASA’s Orion spacecraft and a shuttle-derived heavy-lift booster for “assured access to space.” Although work on Orion is progressing nicely, it is designed for deep space missions that are not yet on the schedule. Meanwhile, the heavy-lift vehicle is still many years away. NASA doesn’t think it can fly one by the Dec. 31, 2016 deadline stipulated by Congress within the budget constraints the space agency has been given.

Congress sees the HLV as a hedge against delays in or the failure of the commercial programs. However, it would be an expensive method for launching crews into low Earth orbit. And give the schedule that the HLV is on, relying upon it could end up lengthening the spaceflight gap and our dependence upon Russian spacecraft to send our astronauts aloft.

The result could be a train wreck: a commercial program that is repeatedly delayed due to a lack of funds that becomes increasingly unfeasible for private companies with investors to satisfy; and an HLV program that sucks up a massive amount of funds while lengthening the gap in human spaceflight. The worst of both worlds.

Something will have to give here. The easiest approach would be to stretch out the HLV development, eliminate the 2016 deadline, and plan to spend more on it over a longer period of time. NASA has no immediate mission for the HLV nor any payloads to fly on it in the short to medium term. Narrowing the spaceflight gap should be a more immediate priority for NASA and Congress. And that means funding commercial crew adequately.