Monday, February 14, 2011

Budget freeze slows rocket development

NASA’s budget would be frozen for the foreseeable future under the fiscal 2012 spending blueprint President Barack Obama released Monday.
Click here to see the budget.

And here is NASA's Budget Overview

The freeze would mean slower rocket development, which is expected to anger members of Congress.

The biggest winner in the president’s spending plan would be the International Space Station, which already has been extended from 2015 to 2020. Other winners would be earth science — including research on carbon emissions that many lawmakers have criticized — and planetary science, with the launch of a Mars science lab scheduled later this year.

But essentially, last year’s freeze on overall domestic spending that exempted NASA now covers the space agency, too.

By sticking indefinitely with the $18.7 billion the agency received in fiscal 2010, Obama’s budget abandons his proposal a year earlier to give the agency an extra $6 billion over five years.

Budget documents said NASA will get the money to develop a heavy-lift rocket and crew capsule “to carry explorers beyond Earth’s orbit, including a mission to an asteroid next decade—the furthest journey in human history."

But the budget would slow rocket development from its current pace, which NASA officials say is already too slow to meet a congressional goal of developing a new heavy-lift rocket by 2016.

The president’s budget blueprint is only a proposal and will be changed by Congress, and it may be overly optimistic to assume lawmakers will approve even flat funding for NASA.

Congress is still debating the agency’s funding between March 4, when stopgap spending legislation for the federal government expires, and Sept. 30, when the fiscal year expires. A House vote is expected later this week.

House Republicans have threatened to cut $379 million from NASA’s budget, which would give the agency about $100 million less it would get under the freeze Obama has proposed.

The president’s plan reflects uncertainties about future spending on NASA, saying estimates about 2013 and beyond are “notional,” or simply guesses.

Under the plan, Kennedy Space Center would have to cut spending on several programs.

The heavy-lift rocket effort championed by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., would get $1.8 billion for the Ares-based rocket and $1 billion for the Orion-based capsule.

Congress passed a policy law last year that gives $2.6 billion to the rocket and $1.4 billion to the capsule.

In a 22-page report last month, the agency warned Congress that that a 2016 launch of a heavy-lift rocket “does not appear possible” within previously projected funding.

Nelson is adamant that the policy law requires NASA to complete the rocket within that time frame, but the agency doesn’t have a total cost estimate or a launch date. It’s reviewing ways to change acquisition policies to meet the deadline, with proposals expected in late spring.

Under Obama’s budget, NASA would spend $850 million next year helping private rocket companies develop rockets to travel to and from the space station. The policy law had called for $500 million in 2012 for commercial-crew development.

"In these unprecedented times of fiscal constraint, commercial crew is a program that will result in major savings to the U.S. taxpayer, and is our fastest way to end our dependence on Russia" for travle to the space station, said John Gedmark, executive director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. "We applaud the strong support for commercial spaceflight in this new NASA budget."

Construction projects at KSC also would suffer. Obama last year proposed $500 million in 2012 to make a 21st Century launch complex, but scaled that back to $130 million in this latest budget proposal.

The shuttle program remains costly next year, despite its scheduled retirement this year after three more flights. The program would receive $665 million in fiscal 2012, largely to cover a $545 million payment to the retirement program for workers.

Not everything was cut.

Spending on the International Space Station would top $2.8 billion next year — or about $500 million above what it got in fiscal 2010, as research expands on the newly extended lab.

NASA officials say maintaining the Space Station advances the agency’s human spaceflight program.

"The International Space Station is where we are learning how to live and work in space," the White House says in the budget released Monday. "The president’s budget supports the operation and enhancement of the International Space Station through at least 2020, maintaining the nation’s leadership in human space flight and sustaining the longest continuous human space flight mission in history."

Spending on earth science would rise to nearly $1.8 billion — more than $300 million above 2010 levels — for research on climate change and other items.

That’s likely to be contentious because Reps. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, and Sandy Adams, R-Orlando, have urged colleagues to cut climate research in favor of human spaceflight.

"The administration’s proposal supports several research satellites currently in development, a campaign to monitor changes in polar ice sheets, enhancements to climate models, and NASA contributions to the National Climate Assessment," the budget said.

The beleaguered James Webb Space Telescope would receive $375 million. In response to cost overruns, the agency plans to meet a summer deadline for re-evaluating spending on the telescope, which auditors said has topped $5 billion.

- Reported by Bart Jansen of Gannett's Washington

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