NASA Officials Cheer $17.7 Billion Request for FY2013
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
Aeronautics: $552 million
Space Technology: $699 million
Exploration: $3.933 billion
Space Operations: $4.013 billion
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.
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