Space Access Update #121 2/16/11
Copyright 2011 by Space Access Society
This week, the House of Representatives is debating a new Continuing Resolution (CR) that will appropriate funds for the Federal Government for the rest of federal fiscal year 2011 (FY'11, October 1 2010 through September 30 2011.) (Background: The entire US government is currently funded by a Continuing Resolution, a stopgap budget bill that continues funding at the previous year's levels when Congress, as they did last year, fails to pass normal budget appropriations. The existing CR runs out this March 4th.) And Monday, the White House released its proposed FY'12 federal budget.
As regards NASA Exploration funding, our view is that the CR is pretty good as-is, while the FY'12 budget proposal could be better but is more or less acceptable. Unfortunately, neither the House FY'11 CR nor the White House NASA FY'12 budget is a final product. Both are opening positions in a negotiating process among the House, Senate, and White House, a process that will likely be particularly volatile this year. Our read of the political factors is that the ongoing attempt to reform NASA human space exploration into actual usefulness could be easily be gutted in the coming months if we stand by and do nothing. The other side of that coin is, there is a possibility for significant improvements if we persuasively sell our case.
Bottom line, it's time to get involved again. As the process unfolds over the coming weeks and months we expect multiple opportunities for specific action, but for the moment what we have for you is our overview of the situation, with (for those of you of an activist bent) some thoughts on what would be useful to educate the Congress about in the meantime.
The FY'11 CR, House Version
The new House CR does several interesting things. It sets overall NASA funding at $18.4 billion, down approximately 1.5% from 2010's $18.7 billion. It cancels the "Shelby Amendment" that's been delaying final shutdown of even the parts of Constellation (notably Ares 1) that nobody expects to keep. And it gives NASA HQ surprising freedom in implementing planned Exploration reforms by reprogramming money between NASA funding accounts for the rest of the fiscal year. This CR largely carries over 2010 amounts to this year's accounts, but then exempts NASA's Space Operations (Station and Shuttle), Aeronautics (where a bunch of new Exploration Technology work was slated to go this year) and Education accounts from the usual Congressional reprogramming limits of 5% max decrease/10% max increase on any one account.
Presumably the surplus in Space Operations from this year's shutdown of the Shuttle program can then go to top up Aeronautics to get the new Exploration Technology projects underway, and possibly also to top up the Exploration account (though to no more than a 10% increase) for expanded Commercial Crew and Cargo (CCDev) work. The main requirement imposed is that NASA HQ report back to Congress with a spending plan within 60 days of CR passage - not a problem, we expect, as HQ has known what they want to do this year for months already.
We do not expect passage of this House version CR to be simple or straightforward. NASA is only cut 1.5%, but this CR makes considerably larger cuts elsewhere that the Senate, the White House, or both will almost certainly strongly oppose. NASA FY'11 funding could possibly be cut further in the compromises likely before a final CR is passed and signed. Worse, there will almost certainly be attempts in the Congress (both House and Senate) to mandate larger slices of the available NASA funding for SLS and MPCV, eating everybody else's lunch.
SLS is "Space Launch System", the new Congressionally mandated and specified heavy lifter. SLS as specified looks remarkably like the old Ares 5, contractors and all (regardless of whether that's legal without a re-compete.) MPCV is Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, the Orion capsule by another name. SLS and MPCV were the result of a compromise last summer. The Senate NASA Authorization bill, s.3729, allocated 2/3rds of the $4 billion NASA Exploration budget to keeping Ares 5 and Orion alive under new names, as opposed to the House version that would have given these projects 9/10ths of the Exploration budget. Under the circumstances, we held our nose and worked for the Senate version; 1/3rd of the Exploration budget for actual exploration preparations was hugely better than 1/10th.
Congress also mandated last summer that SLS and MPCV would fly in far less time for far less money than had been planned for Ares/Orion. You may recall that the Constellation program was cancelled when Ares 1 and Orion projected costs to first flight in 2019 passed $40 billion, climbing fast - the last detailed estimate anyone bothered to make said it could run $49 billion to first flight. Needless to say, this was a major increase from original estimates. For what it's worth, SLS and MPCV are mandated in s.3729 to fly in 2016, roughly half the time, for roughly half that much money.
At that point it becomes blindingly obvious (to us at least) that the real goal is continuing jobs and contracts in Ares/Orion congressional districts, no matter what damage it does to work on making actual future NASA space exploration affordable. NASA HQ has very politely reported back to the Congress that SLS/MPCV simply can't fly as Congressionally specified for the available money. The continued insistence by SLS advocates in Congress that "it's the law!" would be hilarious if they weren't working so hard to waste scarce billions on an obvious never-fly jobs program. But we digress...
One last point of comparison, on the fundamental need to shut down NASA in-house space transport development in favor of procuring transportation on a commercial basis outside of the utterly dysfunctional NASA rocket bureaucracy: Ares 1/Orion were up to $49 billion projected cost to 2019 first flight when they were cancelled. SpaceX recently stated that their total cost for Falcon 9/Dragon development (actual first flight, 2010) has been $600 million so far. That's more than an 80 to 1 cost ratio, for considerably less than a 2 to 1 vehicle capability ratio.
The FY'12 Budget, White House Proposal
The White House FY'12 budget has a top-level problem: It freezes overall Federal spending at 2010 levels, at a time when the House has made it clear that it wants to cut back to 2008 levels. There is immense political pressure to reduce rather than merely freeze Federal spending. This is likely to lead to a major political confrontation, with somewhat unpredictable results. (NASA FY'08 funding was $17.4 billion, 7% less than FY'10's $18.7 billion, for what it's worth.)
NASA still enjoys considerable public good will, and is less vulnerable to cuts than many parts of the government - this is reflected in the House FY'11 CR which trims NASA only 1.5% from FY'10 levels. We see it as possible that overall NASA funding levels for FY'12 will survive this year's budget process relatively unscathed - cut, very likely, but by less than the 7% that would take NASA back to FY'08 levels - but there are no guarantees.
However, as with the FY'11 CR, we see it as near certain that there will be attempts in the Congress to mandate much larger slices of the available pie for SLS and MPCV, raiding other NASA accounts to feed what is in essence an earmarked porkbarrel megaproject. We can (if we must) live with SLS/MPCV as a never-fly jobs program, as long as it's funding-capped and never allowed to pretend that grabbing just a few billion more from the rest of NASA would make any real difference in the outcome. Far better though would be to scale SLS back to a smaller ongoing heavy-lift research program to preserve the core NASA rocket-development talent, while redirecting MPCV to develop a capsule that can ride on available commercial launchers. (Politics may be the art of the possible, but one should never totally forget the ideal.)
The good news is that the White House FY'12 budget does cap SLS/MPCV funding, albeit at a higher level than we'd like - about $1.7 billion per year for SLS, and about $900 million per year for MPCV, about $2.6 billion combined total in FY'12 and for the next several years. This essentially maintains the FY'11 level these programs were started at by the s.3729 FY'11 NASA Authorization, rather than increasing funding significantly in FY'12 and onward as called for in s.3729. It looks to us as if both the White House and NASA HQ are trying to gently steer SLS away from being Ares 5 in drag, and toward a more generic program aimed at figuring out what heavy-lift capability NASA actually needs and how to obtain that capability affordably.
We doubt the Congressional Ares/Orion mega-earmark lobby will accept this course change quietly. We expect continued attempts to both grab funding from, and place roadblocks in front of, programs seen as rivals to continued in-house NASA space transport development - very obviously, Commercial Crew & Cargo (decently funded at just under $800 million in the FY'12 request) and more subtly, Orbital Propellant Depots work. Propellant Depots have potential to greatly reduce (or even eliminate) the need for a really large new booster, reducing future exploration costs in the process. (Much more about Depots at our upcoming conference, Space Access '11, April 7-9 in Phoenix Arizona, details at http://www.space-access.org.)
What Comes Next
We expect a series of sharp tactical fights in the coming months. Part of winning those fights is preparing the battlefield by educating Congress and the public about the issues. For the self-starter solo activists out there, we encourage your individual initiatives, but there are also some group-organized volunteer DC lobbying efforts coming up soon that are worth mentioning:
- Space Frontier Foundation's "Keep The Promise" event, March 6-8, run by people we work with regularly, and focusing pretty directly on the issues we've discussed here.
- ProSpace's "March Storm", March 13-15, announced as focusing primarily on "Zero-G, Zero Tax" but also mentioning support for NASA Commercial Crew & Cargo. Far be it from us to suggest the possibility of getting involved with this effort then working to influence the focus in favor of the issues you consider most timely...
And then there's
- National Space Society/Space Exploration Alliance's "Legislative Blitz", February 27 - March 1. The main NSS webpage currently describes the Blitz agenda as "In September 2010, Congress passed the NASA Authorization Act of 2010. [AKA s.3729 - ed.] It is now time for Congress to enact legislation that appropriates the required funding in compliance with the Authorization Act." We'd advise caution before getting involved with this effort, since taken literally, that's a call to increase SLS/MPCV funding at the expense of other NASA exploration work, as outlined in s.3729. We wouldn't be totally surprised if that's indeed what these groups are pushing for, given their histories. We'd advise checking carefully first before committing here.
There's also an AIAA "Congressional Visits Day" effort March 15-16 that seems to be generically in favor of aerospace technology work. It's not clear how much latitude they'll want to give you to set your own agenda for your visits, but as the old saying goes, it's often easier to ask forgiveness than permission. This could be worthwhile if you're an AIAA member - again though, we'd advise you to find out more before committing.
Happy citizen lobbying!
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