Civil Space Activities

Civil Space Activities

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Brief Introduction


NASA’s FY2009, FY2010 and FY2011 Budgets

NASA’s FY2012 Budget Request

U.S. Civil Space Policy


The 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to conduct a civil space program, while assigning military space activities to the Department of Defense.

Over the past five decades, other U.S. government agencies have taken leadership roles in various aspects of civil space activities, but NASA remains by far the largest and most visible U.S. civil space agency. Others with significant roles in civil space include:

Other agencies also have roles in the space program. The President submits to Congress an annual Aeronautics and Space Report of the President that provides funding and programmatic information about all U.S. Government agencies involved in space activities. The most recent version is for fiscal year (FY) 2008.


NASA conducts both aeronautics and space activities. This website is devoted to space policy and thus does not discuss NASA’s aeronautics programs as critical as they are to the nation. For information on NASA’s aeronautics programs, visit the website of NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate.

NASA is headquartered in Washington, D.C. and has nine field centers around the country: Ames Research Center (Mountain View, CA); Dryden Flight Research Center (Palmdale, CA); Glenn Research Center (Cleveland, OH); Goddard Space Flight Center(Greenbelt, MD), which also operates Wallops Flight Facility (Wallops Island, VA), the Goddard Institute of Space Studies (New York, NY) and the Independent Verification and Validation facility in Fairmont, WV ; Langley Research Center (Langley, VA); Johnson Space Center (Houston, TX), which also operates White Sands Test Facility (White Sands, NM); Kennedy Space Center (Cape Canaveral, FL); Marshall Space Flight Center (Huntsville, AL); and Stennis Space Center (in South Mississippi). Many consider the Jet Propulsion Laboratory(Pasadena, CA) as another NASA center, but it is a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) operated for NASA by the California Institute of Technology. Nonetheless, NASA is usually referred to as having 10 centers around the country, in addition to its headquarters in Washington, D.C.

NASA’s FY2009, FY2010, AND FY2011 BUDGETS

For FY2009, NASA received $17.8 billion in the FY2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act (compared to the $17.6 requested by President Bush). In addition, Congress added $1 billion for NASA in FY2009 in the stimulus bill (America’s Recovery and Reinvestment Act), bringing the total funds available to NASA in FY2009 to $18.8 billion.

President Obama’s FY2010 request for NASA was $18.686 billion. NASA’s budget website provides FY2010 budget request documentation for the agency and transcripts of related press conferences. Funding for NASA was incorporated Into the FY2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act (H.R. 3288, P.L. 111-119), which provides $18.724 billion for the agency. A fact sheet tracked the NASA budget as it worked its way through Congress. One of the major points of contention was the future of the U.S. human space flight program. The White House directed NASA to establish a blue ribbon panel, the Augustine committee, to develop options for the human space flight program. The President did not make a decision about which option to take during the course of congressional deliberations on the FY2010 budget, so Congress included language in the FY2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act prohibiting NASA from spending any funds to terminate the existing program, Constellation, or initiate a new program until Congress approved of such action through another appropriations act. The exact language on p. 110 of the act (H.R. 3288) is:

“That notwithstanding section 505 of this Act, none of the funds provided herein and from prior years that remain available for obligation during fiscal year 2010 shall be available for the termination or elimination of any program, project or activity of the architecture for the Constellation program nor shall such funds be available to create or initiate a new program, project or activity, unless such program termination, elimination, creation, or initiation is provided in subsequent appropriations Acts.”

For FY2011, NASA requested $19.0 Billion, 1.5% more than the FY2010 appropriation. Detailed information about the request is available from NASA on its budget website. Congress and the President did not complete action on the FY2011 appropriations bill for NASA or other government agencies until April 2011, however, half way through the fiscal year. NASA operated on a series of “Continuing Resolutions” (CRs) at its FY2010 level while the debate continued. [Congress did pass an authorization bill for FY2011-2013 (the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, P.L. 111-267), but authorization bills set policy and recommend funding levels; they do not actually provide any money.] NASA was appropriated $18.45 billion for FY2011 in the so-called “full year CR” — P.L. 112-10 — signed into law on April 15, 2011. More information is available in this fact sheet.

The FY2011 budget request proposed dramatic changes to NASA’s plans for the future of the U.S. human space flight program. Briefly, the Obama Administration decided to retain President George W. Bush’s plan to end the space shuttle program as soon as construction of the International Space Station (ISS) was completed, but to terminate development of its successor, which was part of the Constellation program developed in response to President Bush’s 2004 Vision for Space Exploration speech. President Bush had directed NASA to return humans to the Moon by 2020 and someday send them to Mars and the spacecraft that would be used for that purpose would also be used to take crews to and from ISS. The Bush Administration expected a four-year gap between the end of the space shuttle and the availability of the successor system.

Instead, the Obama Administration proposed that development and operation of crew space transportation systems to take people to and from low Earth orbit (LEO), including the ISS, be turned over to the private sector. Under the Obama plan, NASA would focus on developing “game-changing” technologies to enable lower cost human space flight missions beyond LEO in the future while subsidizing private sector companies to develop new crew space transportation systems (launch vehicles and spacecraft) at a total of $6 billion over five years (FY2011-2015). This concept is called “commercial crew.”

The proposal was very controversial and the subject of many congressional hearings during 2010. Congress wanted NASA to develop a new crew space transportation system to service LEO as well as take astronauts to destinations beyond LEO as expected under the Bush plan. One concern was that private sector systems for LEO transportation would not materialize and the “gap” between the end of the space shuttle program and the availability of a new U.S. crew space transportation system would be even longer than four years. The Obama Administration insisted that commercially-developed systems could be ready sooner than a government-developed system, shortening that gap.

A compromise was reached in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act (P.L. 111-267) in which NASA was directed to do both: build a new Space Launch System and a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle for use both in LEO and for yet-to-be-determined beyond LEO destinations, as well as help commercial companies build LEO crew space transportation systems. The law also supported President Obama’s request to extend operations of the ISS through at least 2020; the Bush Administration had envisioned ending U.S. participation in the program in 2015.

Many view the authorization act as recommending insufficient funds to do all that NASA would be required to do, and the FY2011 appropriations level was even less than what was authorized. The debate over the future of the U.S. human space flight program is continuing in the FY2012 budget cycle.


For FY2012, NASA is requesting $18.7 billion, the same as the amount appropriated for FY2010. It is slightly more than what it received for FY2011 (see above). More information about the request is available in this fact sheet, which tracks the request as it works its way through Congress.

The debate over this year’s NASA budget request mirrors the debate over the FY2011 budget. The Obama Administration and Congress remained at odds over the future of the human space flight program for the first half of the year, though it improved in September with the release of the SLS design (see below). The bipartisan leadership of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and its Science and Space Subcommittee was particularly strong in criticizing the Obama Administration’s FY2012 NASA budget request because they believed it contravened the compromise reached in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act (P.L. 111-267). They believed they made it clear that the priority was for NASA to develop a new Space Launch System (SLS) and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), while also permitting NASA to financially assist commercial companies develop commercial crew space systems. The FY2012 budget request, however, asks for more money than was authorized for commercial crew and less money than was authorized for the SLS and MPCV.

The SLS has been a particularly sore point between the Administration and Congress. In June 2011, the Senate Commerce committee issued a subpoena to force NASA to provide documentation about its efforts regarding the SLS because they felt the Administration was dragging its feet. NASA was directed in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act to submit a report to Congress by January 2011 on the SLS and MPCV, but the agency submitted what it calls an interim report. It promised a final report in the spring, which slipped to summer, and in July NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told the House Science, Space and Technology Committee that it might be fall before the report was ready. He asked for patience, but it was clear that congressional patience had worn thin.

The matter came to a head in September after the Wall Street Journal published a story saying that the White House had “sticker shock” over the cost of potentially accelerating the program. Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) issued a blistering press release about “a campaign to undermine” the U.S. human spaceflight program, pointing out that no one was suggesting that the program be accelerated and the cost was perfectly reasonable. The two met with NASA Administrator Bolden and OMB Director Lew on September 13 and the next day the SLS design was released in a hastily called press conference in one of the Senate office buildings. NASA held a media teleconference shortly thereafter providing more details about the design and program plan. The current plan is to spend approximately $3 billion per year on SLS and MPCV, with a first test flight of SLS in 2017 and the first flight with a crew in 2021. That would mean the new system would not be available for crew flights until after the current date for ISS operations to end (2020), which means it would not serve as a backup to the commercial crew systems NASA hopes will be ready sooner than that. The 2010 NASA Authorization Act directed that the SLS/MPCV be available as a backup to commercial crew. Until a new U.S. system, government or commercial, is ready, the United States will have to rely on Russia to take astronauts to and from the ISS.

At the same time, the increasingly austere budget environment is making it difficult for all government agencies that are part of the “discretionary” budget. That includes most of the agencies with which the public is familiar, including all the cabinet-level departments (such as the Department of Defense) and independent agencies like NASA. The drive to cut the deficit by reining in federal spending has become the crucial topic in Washington politics. How NASA will be able to afford a new crew space transportation system of its own while helping commercial companies build their systems, as well as pay for the scientific and aeronautics research that also is part of NASA’s portfolio, is a challenge. This is particularly true as NASA’s primary astrophysics program, the James Webb Space Telescope, is encountering significant overruns.

Thus, although the SLS design has been announced and NASA is moving forward with it, the future of the human spaceflight program remains somewhat controversial, though less so than last year. The Administration appears to have accepted that it must build SLS and MPCV, and Congress is allowing the Administration to financially support commercial crew development, though at a lower level than the Administration prefers. Exactly how much money will be available for each of those endeavors awaits final action on the FY2012 appropriations bill and those that await in the future.


U.S. civil space policy is set both by presidential directive and in law.

The most recent presidential national space policy directive was issued by President Barack Obama on June 28, 2010. It supersedes the policy issued by President George W. Bush in 2006.

The Obama White House said that it would issue additional specific policies for other topics as earlier Presidents have done. President Bush issued these other space policies in addition to his 2006 national space policy:

Congress has set policy most recently in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act (P.L. 111-267). That and other U.S. domestic space laws, including the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Law that created NASA, are discussed under the Space Law section of this website.

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