NASA’s Budget Prospects Decay Further

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Already facing the possibility of deep cuts in its FY 2012 budget, NASA’s financial prospects have become increasingly bleaker over the past week on several fronts, including further reductions and large costs in two high-profile programs.

Last Wednesday, the Office of Management and Budget sent out a memorandum to all federal departments asking them to plan for reductions when preparing their FY 2013 requests:

Unless your agency has been given explicit direction otherwise by OMB, your overall agency request for 2013 should be at least 5 percent below your 2011 enacted discretionary appropriation. As discussed at the recent Cabinet meetings, your 2013 budget submission should also identify additional discretionary funding reductions that would bring your request to a level that is at least 10 percent below your 2011 enacted discretionary appropriation.

NASA received $18.45 billion in the current fiscal year. A five percent reduction would put spending at $17.52 billion; a 10 percent cut would leave the space agency with $16.6 billion. It is not known whether NASA received “explicit direction otherwise” to ignore the budget  guidance.

Meanwhile, Aviation Week reports that the budgets for two large NASA projects — the James Webb Space Telescope and Space Launch System — are not looking real good.

Things with the already over budget and behind schedule Webb Telescope just keep getting worse:

Managers at NASA replanning the James Webb Space Telescope program after an independent cost analysis found it over budget and behind schedule have concluded it will cost about $8.7 billion to finish the telescope in time for a launch in 2018 and operate it at the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point for five years.

An agency spokesman said Monday the revised figure — an increase of $3.6 billion over NASA’s most recent life-cycle-cost estimate for the big infrared space observatory — includes all development, launch operations and science costs.

Details of how the agency will pay the cost will be covered in the fiscal 2013 NASA budget request now in preparation, the spokesman says.

And things aren’t much better with NASA’s heavy-lift vehicle:

An independent analysis by Booz Allen Hamilton of NASA’s plans to develop the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) raises questions about the cost assumptions the agency is using in its own estimates of what it will cost to build the big new rocket.

“Due to unjustified, sometimes substantial future cost savings, the team views each program estimate as optimistic,” Booz Allen evaluators tell NASA managers in a preliminary presentation of their findings.

The final report, and cost estimates, were expected on Capitol Hill Aug. 19. But NASA said it probably wouldn’t be ready until early the following week.

Booz Allen briefed NASA managers and Senate staffers on their findings last week. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, the ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, says the consulting firm’s findings “will confirm what Congress and the NASA technical experts have known for nine months, that the administration could have approved the vehicle design concept months ago, prevented the loss of thousands of jobs, and ensured U.S. leadership in space and science.”

All of these developments place great pressure on NASA’s budget during a period when deficit reduction is a key priority. The House has already proposed cutting NASA’s FY 2011 budget from the $18.7 billion requested by the Obama Administration to only $16.8 billion.  Legislators would spend just over $3 billion on the Space Launch System and the Multipurpose Crew Vehicle. The Commercial Crew Development program’s budget would be kept flat at $312 million (instead of the $850 million proposed) while the Webb Telescope would be canceled outright.