NASA’s budget: is it the money or is it the towering technological challenge?

by | Jan 8, 2008 | Seradata News | 2 comments

So finally NASA has got its money for fiscal year 2008, despite earlier threats of president Bush vetoing the appropriations bill that the space agency’s budget was a part of

The agency’s exploration directorate (ESMD) chief Richard Gilbrech told me in a media telecon last year that they would have to re-evaluate the March 2015 first flight for Ares I crew launch vehicle (CLV) and Orion crew exploration vehicle (CEV) if the budget wasn’t approved by around about now. I would imagine there was a big sigh of relief at NASA HQ when that bill got signed

But what it means for NASA’s programmes when they have had far less to spend for the first three months of FY2008 I just don’t know. I am not even sure if NASA gets its monies straight away or if it gets the cash once it has submitted its operational plan to the US Congress (for which the agency has 60-days to do) or that plan is approved; if that is necessary? Something else for me to research

Now they have to battle it out for the FY2009 request. We already know that NASA wants an extra $350 million for Ares/Orion for FY2009 following Gilbrech’s Congressional testimony last November. What I don’t understand about the ESMD crowd is why, when they suffered cuts in funding, they just don’t blame that for the milestone slips we are seeing in the Constellation programme?I asked Gilbrech’s deputy, Doug Cooke, at the Space Foundation’s National Space Symposium in April 2007 what Constellation programme work had not been done due to the lack of an approved FY2007 budget – he said none

So why is NASA administrator Michael Griffin telling Congress it is lack of money that is pushing the first flight date to March 2015?

Surely maiden flight delays come from a lack of progress in development due to an inability to pay your contractors to do the work?

Interestingly the appropriations bill for NASA’s FY2008 budget says, “Although NASA has claimed that a shortfall of more than $600,000,000 (under the new full cost system) exists as a result of the funding levels provided for exploration in the fiscal year 2007 joint resolution, the NASA Administrator testified at budget hearings on the Administraton’s budget request that no additional funds were needed in fiscal year 2008 and in fact, there would be carryover balances for the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) in this account.”

Of course that would be possible if NASA had set aside Orion development work if another part of the Constellation space transportation system was so far behind that progress with CEV was not going to be the pacing item anytime soon

Is it perhaps that it is not simply a case of not having enough money but there are significant technological hurdles to be overcome because the reality of Constellation is that it is not going to be quite as Shuttle-derived and use lots of ‘commercial off the shelf’ technology as everyone first believed?

For me, with Shuttle retirement coming up in 2010 its impact on the finances is of interest. I asked Griffin during our face-to-face 14 December interview if the FY2009 budget would have a big increase to cover those retirement costs – a process that has been estimated to have a price tag of up to $3 billion – but he refused to talk about the budget saying it would be made public in February

Looking at the FY2009 budget projection in the FY2008 request, FY2009 total NASA budget is only $300 million more than FY2008 and there is actually a cut of $400 million for Shuttle. Does that make sense?

Constellation was supposed to tell the Shuttle programme in December what facilities had to be transferred across. I’ll be following that up soon because clearly it is better to know what has to “change hands” as soon as possible if you are shutting a multi-billion programme down and have to dispose of its assets

While the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration programme’s $76 million cut looks bad I don’t think it will impact the programme. According to the COTS space act agreements (SAA) that are to be found on the Johnson Space Center website if Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) meets its milestones this fiscal year it should get $108 million from NASA; and the agency has $160 million to play with

SpaceX chose not to confirm to me that the JSC posted SAA was accurate (the SAA may have been modified over time for all we know) and would only tell me that enough COTS money was in the NASA FY2008 budget pot

But what about the company that will replace Rocketplane Kistler as SpaceX’s fellow phase one funded SAA participant, you ask? My guess is that the remaining $52 million will be enough to cover the new participants’ funding needs

But what about the US government’s Government Accountability Office’s review of COTS, you ask?

When you consider the fact that the all-important COTS phase two International Space Station re-supply contract is to be placed this year by NASA’s space operations directorate (SOMD) and that you don’t have to have been involved in ESMD’s phase one to bid for the SOMD phase two contract, does it really matter who wins the new SAA or even if it gets awarded?

Overall I think Shuttle’s retirement will have a bigger than expected cost implication for NASA, Constellation will continue to go slower than expected because few in NASA and among its contractors have actually developed a new manned transportation system before, and the new US president is bound to alter NASA’s priorities when all is said and done – so let 2008 roll on!

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