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A transitional budget

There will be a lot of screaming and howling in the coming days about the proposed 2013 NASA budget [pdf], released today by the Obama administration. Though I have many bones to pick about this budget proposal, a longer view of the budget suggests it is merely a reflection of the transitions going on both in NASA and the federal government.

First, some bullet points:


The Obama administration has decided to dump all funding for the European ExoMars program. Instead, the administration says they are considering a new American Mars program, under the name of “Mars Next Decade.” Unfortunately, the budget provides little information about what this new program will entail. So, instead of a new American Mars mission there are significant cuts to the Mars exploration program. The only new Mars mission definitely in the works and alive is MAVEN, designed to study the Martian atmosphere. MAVEN is almost ready for launch in 2013, so obviously the bulk of its costs has already been spent.

The proposed budget also appears to zero out further funding for Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, for the rover Opportunity, for Mars Odyssey, and for Mars Express. These apparent cuts, however, might merely be a budget rearrangement, with the money for these projects now lumped together in a category labeled “Mars Extended Missions”. The consequence of this change is that there is no way to determine how much each of these on-going missions is getting. What is clear is that overall funding for on-going missions has been cut.

The Moon

Except for the LADEE mission to study the Moon’s immediate environment, which is under construction and set for launch in 2013, all funding for lunar research ends next year. The budget mentions that an extension of Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s mission will be considered, but no money is allocated for this at this time.

Other planetary research

Though there are funds to continue the on-going missions to Pluto and Jupiter, as well as money to build the already approved Osiris-REX mission to an asteroid, the recommendations last year by planetary science community have disappeared. The only survivor appears to be the mission to land a spacecraft on the lakes of Titan, which is not yet approved but is competing against two other proposals for what little money remains.


The budget remains flat, squeezed by the $600 million needed each year to get the James Webb Space Telescope finished. There is money to maintain Hubble, Sofia, and other already launched space telescopes, but funds for Kepler will be zeroed out in 2014. Moreover, none of the astronomy community’s recommendations for this decade have survived. While there is funding for some small missions, the big recommendations have apparently all gone to funding heaven.

Manned space

This part of the budget is to me the most contradictory. The Obama administration has reaffirmed its commitment to commercial space by once again requesting a big increase in that part of the budget, from $406 million to just under $830 million. Moreover, the budget says that future contracts under this program will use the more flexible Space Act Agreements that worked under the COTS program to get the cargo rockets of SpaceX and Orbital Sciences started.

This part of the manned budget is all good.

Unfortunately, the administration has also decided to go along with Congress’s demands and continue to fund the Space Launch System (SLS), which includes Orion and the big rocket system that was formerly called Ares. Though this budget item at first glance seems to be reduced by about $238 million, from $3 billion to $2.8 billion, increased funds to rebuild facilities throughout NASA to service this rocket and capsule easily compensates for this reduction.

And what will we get for spending $3 billion a year for years to come? One test launch of Orion in 2014 (on a different rocket because NASA’s won’t be ready yet), followed by a first test flight of the rocket in 2017. Very expensive, and not very practical.

I once again predict that the rocket for the Space Launch System will never fly. Orion might survive, but not as a government capsule. The tragedy is that before these programs finally die, they will waste billions, money that would have been better spent for planetary research or for some new orbiting space telescopes.


Overall, this budget is illustrates what happens when a big and inefficient government program is forced to change.

First, this budget is flat because there is no more money to expand it. The federal debt provides no wriggle room. While the Obama administration might want to increase spending (something I personally doubt in the case of space exploration), its hands are tied. The result is a flat budget (at least for NASA), something we have seen very rarely from our federal government in the past half century. Though some programs will get more money, others will get less. Above all, there is no spare cash for ambitious new and expensive projects, especially in the fields of astronomy and planetary science.

Unfortunately, government programs do not die easily, even when there is no money to support them. The politics won’t allow it. Though SLS and Orion are too expensive and will take too long to become operational, the government can’t simply shut them down. Congress, in its short-sighted tunnel vision focused on local jobs, won’t let that happen, at least not immediately and in one fell swoop. On top of this the bureaucracy fights to keep them alive. Even if Obama himself wanted to shut them down (as he tried to do with Constellation), the bureaucracy fights back and forces their survival, at least for a little while.

The result: we will see these dying programs die a slow death. As the commercial companies increasingly come on line, providing manned launch services at a tenth the cost and far faster, Congress will eventually wake up and realize they aren’t getting their money’s worth from SLS. More importantly, the new companies will provide the jobs that SLS is supposed to create, giving Congress the freedom to dump this less productive program.

Sadly, this slow death will take time and waste billions. Government just does not have the flexibility and nimbleness to react well to these kinds of changes. Worse, more useful and productive programs but with less political clout — such as planetary research and astronomy — will be forced to go to the back of the bus in the interim and wait.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit. If you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and the author gets a bigger cut much sooner.

The audiobook is also available at all these vendors, and is also free with a 30-day trial membership to Audible.

"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs."--San Antonio Express-News


  • wow thanks for the analysis . I wish we could have more planetary missions .. I would love to see a mission to a lake on titan that would be neat!

  • Blackjax

    Congress will eventually wake up and realize they aren’t getting their money’s worth from SLS. More importantly, the new companies will provide the jobs that SLS is supposed to create, giving Congress the freedom to dump this less productive program.

    I don’t know why people persist in thinking that Congress will ever evaluate a program like SLS on the basis of the amount of ‘spaceflight’ it provides. Congress is largely not composed of space enthusiasts and really does not care about measuring things on this basis. Consequently they are never going to ‘wake up’ because they have never been asleep. They know exactly what they want to get out of the SLS and they are getting it, money flowing to certain contractors, NASA centers, and congressional districts. Just because our objective is spaceflight doesn’t mean it is anywhere on their agenda.

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