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Events of Interest: Week of February 20-24, 2012

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Feb-2012 (Updated: 19-Feb-2012 10:03 PM)

The following events may be of interest in the week ahead.

The House and Senate are in recess (except for non-legislative pro forma sessions).

Monday-Tuesday, February 20-21

Tuesday, February 21

Tuesday-Thursday, February 21-23

Thursday, February 23

 Thursday-Friday, February 23-24

House Committee Members Argue Against Cuts to Mars Exploration, Weather Satellites

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Feb-2012 (Updated: 19-Feb-2012 04:54 PM)

Cutting federal spending may be on the top of Washington’s priority list, but not if it impacts NASA’s Mars and human exploration programs or NOAA’s weather satellites if House science committee members have their way. 

At a House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing on Friday, Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) sharply criticized the President’s FY2013 budget request for research and development (R&D) for singling NASA out for “unequal treatment.”  Ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) joined him in complaining about cuts to the robotic Mars exploration program while other members rued the level of funding for NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). 

The topic of the hearing was the FY2013 budget request for R&D.  John Holdren, President Obama’s science adviser and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), was the only witness.  He defended the request which, he said, increases non-defense R&D by five percent over the FY2012 level despite austere budget times. 

Committee Chairman Hall, however, criticized that request because it proposes increases for all the agencies within the committee’s jurisdiction except NASA.   He is particularly concerned about the proposed reductions in NASA’s robotic Mars exploration program and inadequate funding for the Space Launch System (SLS), the new “heavy lift” rocket that NASA is building at congressional direction in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act to take astronauts out into the solar system.

Hall stressed that in that Act, Congress directed that the SLS and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle be available to serve as a backup to commercial crew to transport astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).  Under NASA’s proposed schedule, however, SLS/Orion system will not be ready for its first crewed flight until 2021, a year after ISS operations are currently scheduled to be discontinued.  Holdren deflected a question from Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) about whether the SLS program would remain on its current schedule by saying he “had a cloudy crystal ball” when trying to predict the progress of complex technological projects.  He did, however, assure the congressman that he did not know of any plans to delay it. 

Hall asked Holdren about the decision to use Space Act Agreements for developing commercial crew capabilities and the fact that they do not allow NASA to require companies to meet safety standards.  Holdren demurred, saying that he did not know the details, but said that as far as he knows NASA retains responsibility for the safety of its astronauts and ”if there is a problem in the agreements that would jeopardize that, I am sure we will fix it.” 

Hall also inquired how Holdren could say that the budget represents an “integrated strategy” for Mars exploration “that ensures the next steps for the robotic Mars exploration program,” since there is no next mission to Mars in the budget.  Holdren countered that even though the NASA budget cannot support two planned Mars missions with Europe in 2016 and 2018, “we retain the most vigorous and forward leaning program … in the world” with a rover (Opportunity) already on the surface of Mars and another one (Curioisty) on its way,  two spacecraft (Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) already in orbit and another scheduled for launch next year (MAVEN), “and additional missions going forward.”  He insisted that “We are in no way retreating from our commitment to have a vigorous program of Mars exploration including laying the groundwork for human exploration.”  

Ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) joined Hall in criticizing cuts to the Mars planetary science program.   She said that the decision could create the perception that the United States is an unreliable partner at a time when international cooperation is more important than ever. Not everyone on the committee agreed with that sentiment, however. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) later said that she considered the NASA request to be “prudent” and suggested that the Europeans may not be able to afford their Mars plans either considering the economic circumstances in Europe. 

In general, Holdren defended the request for NASA, asserting it “honors the priorities” of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, including support for development of SLS and Orion, operations of the ISS through at least 2020, commercial crew, launching the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) in 2018, “an integrated strategy” for the robotic Mars exploration program that supports both science and human exploration goals, a balanced set of Earth and space science missions, a “dynamic” space technology program, and a “strong aeronautics research effort.” 

NOAA’s satellite programs also were debated during the hearing.  Johnson praised the proposed increase for NOAA’s new geostationary weather satellite program, GOES-R, but expressed concern about “the small cut” to NOAA’s new polar-orbiting system, the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS).  She referred to JPSS as a “long-troubled” effort, although it was initiated only in FY2011.  However, it is NOAA’s successor to a long-troubled program -- the tri-agency National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental   Satellite System (NPOESS) – that was terminated by the Obama Administration in the FY2011 budget after 16 years of delays and overruns.  JPSS, however, did not receive its requested funding level in FY2011 or FY2012, and NOAA is warning that there likely will be a gap in data several years from now when existing satellites cease functioning, but the first JPSS is not yet operational. 

Holdren said NOAA’s weather satellites are “crucial” and blamed the potential gap on the previous Administration and Congress itself.   Holdren said “we’ve been threatened for some time with a gap we inherited,” perhaps suggesting that the Bush Administration should have cancelled NPOESS instead of leaving it for President Obama.  “We’re doing everything possible to … minimize that gap even if we don’t now have the capability to avoid it all together,” he asserted.  He pointed to the less-than-requested funding JPSS received for the previous two years and said in the FY2013 budget they are “trying to make up for it.”  In fact, he blamed the need to fund weather satellites for why the NOAA R&D budget overall would decline in FY2013.  “Nobody wanted to reduce … the R&D portfolio’’ at NOAA, “but we absolutely have to minimize the gap,” he said. 

Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) complained about cuts to NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS), but Holdren insisted that the most important thing for the NWS is getting basic data about what the atmosphere is doing.  If money cannot be found to pay for the satellites that provide that data, he said, then “all the money in the world poured into the Weather Service won’t make up for the deficit.” 

The hearing was broadly on the R&D budget request and one of the other topics that arose was interaction with China.   Two committee members -- Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Chip Cravaack (R-MN) -- grilled Holdren on why the United States would want to share any technology with China as Rohrabacher said Vice President Joe Biden suggested earlier in the week during a visit by China’s Vice President Xi Jinping.   Holdren insisted that the Administration does not want to share any technologies with China that are harmful to U.S. interests, but there are some where it is in our own best interest to share.  He cited nuclear reactor safety, avoiding theft of nuclear materials from nuclear facilities, influenza, and reducing emissions of pollutants as examples. 

NOAA Administrator: Weather Satellites Vital, But "Loom Large" in Budget

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Feb-2012 (Updated: 17-Feb-2012 11:33 AM)

Referring repeatedly to the "painful choices" that had to be made, Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), presented her agency's FY2013 budget request at a briefing on Thursday.  The need to fund the nation's "vital" civil weather satellites means that other NOAA programs will be cut, she said, even though the agency as a whole is requesting a slight increase compared to FY2012.  

NOAA, part of the Department of Commerce, is building a new generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites -- the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) -- as well as a new generation of geostationary weather satellites -- the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R) series.  The FY2013 JPSS budget request is $916.4 million, a slight decrease from the $924 million NOAA received for FY2012.  For GOES-R, the request is $802 million, up substantially from $615.6 million in FY2012 -- Lubchenco called it a "planned increase."   NOAA's total request is $5.1 billion, an increase of $154 million over FY2012.

Cost overruns and schedule delays in building the new weather satellites, highlighted by the programmatic failure of the tri-agency National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), have left Congress skeptical of the program management capabilities of NOAA and its NPOESS partner, the Department of Defense (DOD).   DOD has its own polar orbiting weather satellites -- the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP).   NPOESS was supposed to merge the NOAA and DOD polar-orbiting systems, but the Obama Administration gave up on the effort in FY2011 after 16 trouble-filled years.  The decision followed a final independent review that concluded the two agencies' cultures were simply too disparate for them to work together effectively.

The NPOESS divorce terms were that NOAA and DOD would revert to separate systems.  NOAA's is JPSS and more urgently needed since all of NOAA's polar orbiting satellites already are in orbit.   DOD still has two of its legacy DMSP satellites "in the barn" awaiting launch when needed.  (DOD was planning a new system, the Defense Weather Satellite System, but it now also has been cancelled.)

The Obama Administration included a sizeable increase for NOAA to get started on JPSS in the FY2011 budget.  Unfortunately, that request was swept up in congressional turmoil as Republicans regained control of the House.  Decisions on the FY2011 budget were delayed until half way through that fiscal year and many programs -- including JPSS -- were held to their previous year's level.   Since the FY2010 level reflected the NPOESS program where NOAA and DOD were sharing the costs, it was less than half of what NOAA needed for JPSS.

The program fared better in FY2012, receiving $924 million of the $1.07 billion requested, but the damage was done.  NOAA is concerned that there is very likely to be a "data gap" when existing satellites expire before the first JPSS is launched.   Kathy Sullivan, Deputy Administrator of NOAA, said yesterday that there may still be a data gap even if Congress agrees to the funding level for JPSS included in the FY2013 request. 

NOAA launched its last polar-orbit weather satellite in 2009.   It has a five year design lifetime.  A NASA research satellite, Suomi NPP, that was designed to test new technologies for the NPOESS program and was launched last fall will be pressed into service as an operational weather satellite to bridge the gap until the first JPSS is launched in late 2016 or early 2017.    Suomi NPP has a three-year design lifetime.  While satellites often exceed their design lifetimes, it is risky to bank on that, which is why NOAA is worried.  Sullivan said that if all the satellites meet, but do not exceed, their design lifetimes, a 20-22 month data gap could result, especially taking into account that it requires several months for the JPSS satellite to be tested and calibrated after launch.

Lubchenco said yesterday that the FY2013 request provides a "stable funding path for the next five years" for JPSS and that the agency has committed to a funding cap for the lifecycle costs of the program.    Senate appropriators included a cap in their version (S. Rept. 112-78) of the FY2012 appropriations bill that funds NOAA (P.L. 112-55), but it was not adopted in the conference report (H. Rept. 112-284).  The Senate wanted to cap the program at $9.43 billion through 2024.  Lubchenco did not specify if that is the cap to which she is now committed.

The Senate appropriators fretted about the "long term drain" JPSS could have on other NOAA programs.  That sentiment was echoed in yesterday's briefing as well.   Lubchenco stated that "the need to fund polar and geostationary satellites imposes serious constraints on the rest of NOAA's budget."  Later, In response to a question about whether cuts to NOAA's education programs might be restored next year, she replied that satellites "will continue to loom large in our budget." 

The GOES-R program has had its own significant overruns, although it appears to be on track at the moment.   The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued several reports about the program, most recently in 2010.   The first of the GOES-R series is expected in the first quarter of FY2016.  Lubchenco called the geostationary weather satellites "an unblinking eye in the sky" to monitor hurricanes and other weather phenomena.

Lubchenco's clear message, in fact, is that weather satellites are vital to many of NOAA's other programs, including fisheries, coastal management, and building a "weather-ready nation," not to mention many other aspects of American life, the economy and national security.  Therefore, they must be a top priority for NOAA, she said.

NOAA's FY2013 request also supports two smaller satellite programs, JASON-3 and DSCOVR.   JASON-3 is the third in a series of U.S.-European ocean altimetry satelites for which $30 million is requested, up from $19.7 million provided in FY2012.   DSCOVR is a space weather satellite that dates back to the Clinton Administration when it was called Triana.  Vice President Al Gore was closely associated with developing the idea for the satellite and its launch was deferred for political reasons after George W. Bush became President.   The return of White House control to Democrats in 2009 gave the project new life and NASA, NOAA and DOD are working together to get the spacecraft ready for launch and into space.  NOAA is requesting $22.9 million for FY2013, compared to $29.8 million provided for FY2012.

NASA Science Officials: News Not Entirely Bleak for Mars, PU-238 Restart Still Needed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Feb-2012 (Updated: 16-Feb-2012 01:36 PM)

NASA may be ending its plans to launch two Mars spacecraft with the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2016 and 2018, but smaller Mars missions are not out of the question according to John Grunsfeld, the new head of NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD).  He and Jim Green, director of SMD's planetary science division, tried to paint a less than bleak picture of the future of NASA's Mars exploration program during a budget briefing on Monday.   At the same time, Green reaffirmed NASA's need for the Department of Energy (DOE) to restart production of plutonium-238 (Pu-238), which is needed to power some NASA solar system exploration spacecraft.

The FY2013 budget request for NASA cuts the planetary science budget from $1.5 billion to $1.2 billion.  Consequently, NASA has informed ESA that it will not be able to participate in two robotic Mars missions in 2016 and 2018 the two agencies were planning to execute cooperatively.   The 2016 mission is called ExoMars.  The planetary science community has reacted with dire warnings about the consequences of foregoing those missions as well as postponing plans for other planetary programs such as exploration of the outer planets (Jupiter and beyond) and their moons.   The Planetary Society said the cuts "strike at the heart of one of NASA's most productive and successful programs over the past decade."

NASA's total budget request of $17.711 billion is slightly less than the agency received for FY2012 -- $17.770 billion after being adjusted for a $30 million rescission included in the agency's FY2012 appropriations bill.  SMD's budget would decline from $5.074 billion to $4.911 billion.  Earth science, heliophysics and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) would get increases, while planetary science and the non-JWST portions of the astrophysics program would decrease.   (See our FY2013 NASA budget request fact sheet for details.)

Grunsfeld stressed that a NASA Mars mission, Curiosity, is currently enroute to Mars with landing expected in August, and another Mars probe, MAVEN, is scheduled for launch in 2013.   He did not rule out smaller U.S. missions in 2016 and 2018, but not the "flagship" class missions that ESA and NASA were discussing.   The ESA-NASA missions were first steps in a series of mission intended to culminate in returning a sample of Mars to Earth.   Grunsfeld said that he "hoped" a sample return mission still could be accomplished within 20 years.  As NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden explained at his budget briefing earlier in the day, he has charged Grunsfeld, NASA's Chief Scientist, NASA's Chief Technologist, and NASA's Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations to develop an integrated strategy for Mars exploration that would support both human and robotic exploration.

Even though NASA's planetary aspirations are being scaled back, Green said that the agency still needs DOE to restart production of Pu-238, an artificially produced isotope.   Three reports from the National Research Council (NRC) since 2009 have characterized the need for "Pu-238 restart" as critical.   DOE owns the facilities where Pu-238 can be created, but they were closed years ago.  Subsequently, DOE purchased Pu-238 from Russia, but Russia canceled its contract with DOE in 2009.   Historically, DOE produced the Pu-238 and provided it to NASA.  In its FY2010 budget request, the Obama Administration asked for $30 million in DOE's budget to restart production, but Congress said no because it felt NASA should fund it.  In FY2011, the Administration split the costs equally between the two agencies with the idea that NASA would transfer its money to DOE.  The NASA funding was approved, but not DOE's.   The situation was repeated for FY2012.   

This year, the Administration is not trying to win support for DOE funding for Pu-238 production.  The only requested funding is in NASA's budget -- $10 million.   Green said NASA transferred the money it received to DOE and it is being used for studies on how much Pu-238 could be delivered and when using DOE's existing facilities. 

Pu-238 is needed for spacecraft that cannot rely on solar energy to produce electricity to power instruments and systems because they travel too far from the Sun or will be in darkness on lunar or planetary surfaces for long periods of time.   NASA has used Radioisotope Power Sources (RPS's) for decades for these types of spacecraft.   When it determined its requirements in 2009, many such probes were planned.

The clear message from the NASA budget briefings on Monday is that no new flagship missions -- the most expensive -- are being planned for the indefinite future.   A number of lunar surface probes that were to support the Constellation program also disappeared when that program was cancelled.   The question then is how much Pu-238 is needed.   Green said that several of the contenders for selection in the smaller Discovery and mid-size New Frontiers classes would need Pu-238, so the agency still considers Pu-238 restart to be crucial.  

Critics of the cutbacks to planetary exploration blame cost overruns on JWST.   NASA officials refused to make that connection, however, insisting that the smaller budget should be expected since development of Curiosity and two other planetary spacecraft -- LADEE and MAVEN -- has ended or soon will.   

The JWST overrun, however, has impacted funding for other astrophysics missions.   Chief among them is the Wide-Field InfraRed Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which was the top large space mission recommended by the 2010 NRC decadal survey for astronomy and astrophysics.  Grunsfeld confirmed there is no money in the FY2013 budget to begin development of WFIRST, whose purpose is three-fold:  to search for planets in solar systems elsewhere in the universe (exoplanets), conduct an all-sky infrared survey, and try to unravel the secrets of dark energy.  Instead, NASA is hoping for a small role in ESA's dark energy mission, Euclid.

The teleconference ended before questions could be asked about plans for Earth science or heliophysics.    Both budgets would increase in FY2013, although the OCO-2 mission could be delayed for as many as two years.  The original Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) was lost when its Taurus XL launch vehicle failed.   NASA quickly began to build a replacement anticipating a relatively fast relaunch, but another Taurus XL failed dooming another NASA earth science satellite (GLORY).   The OCO-2 spacecraft should be completed in FY2013, but  NASA is continuing to assess its options for launching it and states that the launch could slip to 2015.    

Third Time's the Charm -- Russia's Proton Rocket Successfully Orbits SES-4

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Feb-2012 (Updated: 14-Feb-2012 11:13 PM)

Russia succeeded in launching a communications satellite for SES today after two previous attempts were scrubbed.

In an anomalous situation for the Russian space launch industry, two previous attempts to launch the SES satellite in December 2011 and January 2012  encountered technical problems close to launch and the rocket had to be removed from the launch pad for repairs.  Designated SES-4 or NSS-14, the satellite was successfully lofted today.  The need to roll back from the launch pad received considerable media attention because Russia's aerospace industry is experiencing an unusual wave of accidents and failures.

 

New FCC Decision Dooms LightSquared - UPDATED

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Feb-2012 (Updated: 16-Feb-2012 10:18 AM)

UPDATE:   Links to the FCC announcement and its request for comments (due March 1) have been added and the article slightly rewritten accordingly.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has decided to revoke its year-old provisional decision to allow the company LIghtSquared to proceed with its mobile broadband system because of concerns it will interfere with GPS receivers.

LightSquared wants to create a hybrid satellite-terrestrial mobile broadband system.  It received provisional FCC approval to proceed in January 2011 as long as it could demonstrate that its signals would not interfere with Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers that are ubiquitous in the aviation, automobile, personal data assistant and many other markets -- not to mention national security.   The 2011 FCC decision set off a firestorm of opposition that resulted in a flurry of congressional hearings lambasting LightSquared.  The most recent was last week.

The February 14 statement by FCC spokeswoman Tammy Sun  states that the FCC will indefinitely suspend its January 2011 decision and release a request for public comment.  That request was released on February 15; comments are due March 1, 2012.

The FCC action responds to a letter from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).  The FCC governs use of the radio frequency spectrum by the private sector, while NTIA governs its use by the goverment.   NTIA wrote to the FCC Tuesday saying that recent tests show there is "no practical way to mitigate the potential interference at this time."

LightSquared insists that the problem is that manufacturers of GPS receivers are to blame for any interference.   It says that it designed its system in conformance with the FCC's technical requirements, but the GPS receivers were built so that they listen for signals outside the band in which they are supposed to be operating.  The company asserts that the recent tests cited by the NTIA were flawed.  

USGS Director: Landsat Has Many Fans, But Affordable Solution Needed for Future

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Feb-2012 (Updated: 16-Feb-2012 12:52 PM)

Marcia McNutt, Director of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), said today that the Obama Administration is "full of fans of Landsat," but that an affordable solution must be found to continue this series of land remote sensing satellites.

McNutt spoke at a briefing on the FY2013 budget request for USGS, part of the Department of the Interior.   USGS is requesting $1.1 billion for FY2013, a $35 million increase over its FY2012 level.  The request includes $53.3 million for USGS activities related to operating and disseminating data from Landsat 5 and 7, the two satellites now in orbit, and developing the ground system for the next in the series, the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) or Landsat 8.  NASA is funding the development and launch of the LDCM spacecraft.  It is scheduled for launch in January 2013.

The pressing question is what comes next.  The Landsat user community has grown tremendously since the data were made available for free in 2008.   The medium resolution (30 meter and 15 meter) data from Landsat satellites have little commercial value compared to the high resolution (less than 1 meter) data available from companies like GeoEye and DigitalGlobe.  Nonetheless, the data are critical for many applications, especially in agriculture and land use studies.  The first Landsat (then called ERTS) was launched by NASA in 1972 and the resulting 40-year data-set is considered invaluable.  The Landsat program has endured a tumultuous programmatic history and survives largely because of a strong and vocal user base.

Users now are worried about a gap in data acquisition both between now and when Landsat 8 is operational because Landsat 5 and 7 are failing, as well as after Landsat 8 stops functioning.  Landsat 8 has a five-year design lifetime.  Landsat 5 and 7 have operated long past their design lifetimes, but users cannot bank on that happening with future satellites.  Landsat 5 was launched in 1984.  Its operations were suspended last fall after it experienced an electronics failure.   Landsat 7 was launched in 1999 and its data have been degraded since 2003 because of a failure in its scan line corrector

In the FY2012 budget request, the Obama Administration proposed transferring the entire Landsat program to USGS, which would take responsibility for developing requirements and funding development, launch, and operation of future satellites.  USGS is willing to take on the role, but Congress rejected the plan because of concerns about negative impacts on other parts of the USGS budget.  Congress gave USGS only $2 million in FY2012 for studies related to the next in the series, Landsat 9.

McNutt said that USGS is working with NASA, NOAA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) on how to craft an affordable program that would keep the Department of the Interior in the lead because "everyone is still convinced" USGS is the agency that best understands the user community.

For FY2013, however, USGS is not even requesting $2 million to keep level with FY2012.   At today's budget briefing, Matt Larsen, Associate Director for Climate & Land Use Change, said that only "a quarter of a million" -- $250,000 -- is in the budget proposal for Landsat 9 studies.   USGS requested the National Research Council to conduct a study and make recommendations on how to implement a sustained land imaging program.  Larsen said that would be one input to deliberations among Administration stakeholders, but that it also will release a Request for Information to the Landsat community in the coming weeks.

Gerstenmaier: Soyuz Launch Date May Advance, INKSNA Waiver Needed, Beyond LEO Destination TBD

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Feb-2012 (Updated: 16-Feb-2012 12:23 PM)

In addition to the top-line messages of the budget briefings by NASA officials yesterday regarding the FY2013 budget request, a number of other important points were made primarily as answers to questions from reporters.  Here are some interesting tidbits from the teleconference with Bill Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations.

NASA is requesting money for purchasing transportation services to and from the International Space Station (ISS) after the current contract with Russia runs out in mid-2016, but is not yet choosing who would provide those services - Russia or U.S. commercial companies.  In an earlier agency-level budget briefing, NASA Administrator Bolden had said that NASA expects commercial crew will be ready "no earlier than 2017."   Gerstenmaier pointed out, however, that some of the U.S. commercial companies insist they might be ready sooner than that and thus NASA has not made a firm decision to buy more seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft.  Representatives of Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX testified to the House Science, Space and Technology Committee last fall that they could be ready by 2015 if there is adequate funding.  Congress subsequently provided NASA with substantially less funding to support the commercial crew program, but, conceptually, private investors could come forward to make up the difference.   Gerstenmaier said NASA will decide probably next spring as to who to contract with for those services.

Nonetheless, the Administration is planning to ask Congress this spring for another waiver to the Iran-North Korea-Syria-Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA) to allow it to continue to purchase ISS-related services from Russia after mid-2016.    That is not necessarily an indication that NASA is skeptical that commercial crew will be ready by then, but Gerstenmaier said Russia provides other services that will be necessary throughout the life of the ISS, including analysis, systems engineering, and keeping the Functional Cargo Block (FGB) module "up to date."   NASA paid Russia for the FGB (also known as Zarya) so it is U.S.-owned, but Russian-built.  Launched in 1998, it was the first ISS module in orbit.  Gerstenmaier had indicated at an October 2011 House committee hearing that a request for another INKSNA waiver was in the works.

Although Russia has been experiencing unexpected problems in its space program recently, Gerstenmaier indicated that he remains confident of Russia's ability to support ISS.  In fact, he said, the next Soyuz launch may be moved up from its current May 15 launch date.   The launch was scheduled for March 30, but had to be postponed after the Soyuz spacecraft that was to be launched was damaged during testing.   Russia is replacing it with the next Soyuz that was in the manufacturing process and apparently may be able to get it ready earlier than expected.

As for human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit, Gerstenmaier confirmed plans to launch a test flight of the Orion capsule in 2014 and the first flight of NASA's Space Launch System in 2017 with an unoccupied Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.   But it will be four more years before there is a second SLS flight with an Orion carrying a crew.  Gerstenmaier said that during that time Orion will be outfitted with the systems needed to support a crew, such as life support systems.  When asked if money was the pacing item making it such a long wait, he replied yes.

He also was asked about why it was taking so long to choose the next destination for human spaceflight and whether landing on the Moon is "on or off the list." Gerstenmaier replied that a Moon landing is neither on nor off the list because the list is still being developed.   NASA continues to conduct studies about what missions will be enabled by the capabilities it is building.  Once that is done, a decision will have to be made about the destination.  He noted, however, that a goal such as landing on the Moon would require funding to build a lander and it is not clear when such money would be available.  "Those are the trades we need to make," he said.

NASA Officials Cheer $17.7 Billion Request for FY2013

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Feb-2012 (Updated: 13-Feb-2012 08:09 PM)

Leaks to the press last week about the broad outlines of NASA's FY2013 budget request muted the official roll-out of the budget today, but it is now confirmed that NASA's FY2013 request is $17.711 billion.  That is a slight decrease from its $17.800 enacted level for FY2012, but $1 billion less than NASA projected it would have a year ago. 

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and NASA Chief Financial Officer Beth Robinson briefed the overall budget this afternoon, followed by slightly more detailed briefings by the Associate Administrator (AA) for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier, AA for Science John Grunsfeld, AA for Aeronautics Jaiwon Shin, and Chief Technologist Mason Peck.   All portrayed the budget in a positive light considering the country's economic situation.  The top line budget numbers are: 

Science: $4.911 billion

  • Earth Science, $1.784 billion
  • Planetary Science, $1.192 billion
  • Astrophysics, $659 million
  • James Webb Space Telescope:  $628 million
  • Heliophysics, $647 million 

Aeronautics:  $552 million

Space Technology:  $699 million

Exploration:  $3.933 billion

  • Exploration Systems and Development (Orion and SLS): $2.769 billion
    • Space Launch System:  $1.340 billion 
    • Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion): $1.025 billion
    • Exploration Ground Systems:  $404.5 million
  • Commercial Spaceflight (commercial crew):  $830 million
  • Exploration Research and Development:  $334 million

Space Operations:  $4.013 billion

  • Space Shuttle:  $71 million
  • International Space Station:  $3.008 billion
  • Space and Flight Support:  $935 million

Education:  $100 million

Cross Agency Support:  $2.848 billion 

Construction and Environmental Remediation:  $619 million

Inspector General: $37 million

    Last year, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was separated from the rest of the astrophysics program because of management problems.  If the two amounts are added together, the astrophysics discipline is slated to get $1.287 billion.

    Robinson was careful to point out that the amount for the Space Launch System includes funds that are accounted for in the SLS line ($1.34 billion), part of the construction line ($140 million), and the exploration ground support line ($406 million).  All told, she said, the request for SLS is $1.885 billion.  SLS is a high priority for Congress, especially Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) who has fought for the program over the past two years.  In a press statement, she sharply criticized the request for cutting millions of dollars from SLS and Orion while asking for $830 million for commercial crew:  "The Administration remains insistent on cutting SLS and Orion to pay for commercial crew rather than accommodating both."

    The future of the robotic Mars exploration program was a recurring theme of questions asked at the briefings.   NASA has informed the European Space Agency that it will not participate in two Mars missions in 2016 and 2018 respectively that had been a focus of NASA-ESA cooperation since 2009.   Bolden and Robinson played down the significance of the change in plans and frankly stated that the agency simply cannot afford another "flagship" mission at this time.   Flagships are the most expensive of the NASA categories of scientific spacecraft.  The agency just launched a Mars-bound flagship mission, the Mars Science Laboratory (or Curiosity), and is building another flagship -- the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).   Questions about whether overruns on JWST caused the budget cut to the Mars program were deflected.   NASA officials insisted that the decrease in funding for planetary science from $1.5 billion to $1.2 billion is due to Curiosity's launch and the impending launches of two other planetary missions (LADEE and MAVEN).  With the development phases of those spacecraft completed or coming to an end, reduced funding should be expected, they said.  

    Bolden made clear that NASA is not walking away from Mars exploration missions, but instead will develop an integrated strategy for Mars exploration that responds to the needs of both the Science Mission Directorate and the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.   He said that he has charged Grunsfeld, Gerstenmaier, Peck and NASA Chief Scientist Waleed Abdalati to come up with the integrated plan.   Grunsfeld said later that he is not ruling out a mission -- not a flagship mission, but something smaller -- for the 2018 opportunity.   The Earth and Mars are correctly aligned in their orbits around the Sun every 26 months to launch spacecraft and 2018 is a particularly good alignment -- a "sweet spot" according to Grunsfeld.  He will be talking with the planetary science community to come up with new ideas on how to take advantage of it.

    Fundamentally, all the NASA officials were putting a positive spin on the budget request, insisting that a $17.7 billion request signals strong White House support for what NASA does even though it is less than the current level.   As was true last year, the White House allowed NASA to show its projected "out year" budget as remaining level for the next 5 years even though the White House's own budget charts show a different picture.  Last year the White House numbers were lower than what NASA used; this year it is the reverse.  In the White House material, NASA's budget would rise ever so slightly year by year beginning in FY2014, reaching $21.4 billion in 2022.  As everyone says, though, projections are just that, a notional idea of what the future may hold.

    White House: FY2013 Budget Supports Commitment to Three "Key" Science Agencies, NASA Not One of Them

    Marcia S. Smith
    Posted: 13-Feb-2012 (Updated: 13-Feb-2012 01:00 PM)

    President Obama's FY2013 budget request for science and technology (S&T) and research and development (R&D) supports the Administration's commitment to double the budgets for three "key" science agencies, a list that does not include NASA.

    Those three agencies are the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST), and the Office of Science in the Department of Energy (DOE/Science).   They will get a total of $13.1 billion, a 4.4 percent increase over FY2012, according to a White House fact sheet.

    The total FY2013 budget request is $3.8 trillion, of which $140.8 billion across the government is for R&D, an increase of 1.4 percent over FY2012.  OSTP says that includes a cut to defense-related development, but an increase for non-defense R&D of 5 percent over the FY2012 level.

    NASA's budget request is $17.7 billion, a small decrease from its FY2012 appropriated level of $17.8 billion, but a substantial decrease from the projected level of $18.7 billion shown last year in NASA's budget materials.    OSTP identifies $9.6 billion of NASA's FY2013 budget request as R&D and that portion of NASA's budget would get a 2.2 percent increase in FY2013. 

     

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