NASA's FY2012 Budget Request is $18.7 Billion, Same as FY2010, Amid Much Uncertainty

NASA's FY2012 Budget Request is $18.7 Billion, Same as FY2010, Amid Much Uncertainty

The one word that best describes NASA’s FY2012 budget request is uncertainty. The agency does not know how much money it will get for the current fiscal year – FY2011 – or what to really expect for its “out-years” — FY2013-2016. All the agency knows is what the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is allowing the agency to request for FY2012: $18.7 billion, the same as its FY2010 level.

There are other uncertainties, too. The FY2012 budget request does not reflect the results of pending detailed studies of the extra costs associated with the James Webb Space Telescope program or the costs for the new Space Launch System and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle required by the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. Those answers may require adjustments to spending within the agency’s mission directorates or divisions.

For an agency like NASA whose programs take many years to execute, uncertainty about the out-years is particularly problematic. While projected funding figures are always notional, they do usually reflect a President’s policy priorities.

Last year, despite a widespread misperception that President Obama cut NASA’s budget, in fact the White House envisioned a $6 billion increase over 5 years for the agency. The upswing would have relatively robustly funded NASA’s space and earth science programs, aeronautics, space technology development, and a dramatic shift in the human spaceflight program to government support of companies seeking to build the next human spaceflight system for access to low Earth orbit (LEO) instead of NASA. In a compromise with Congress, the agency ended the year with direction to do both –build a new government Space Launch System and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle to take astronauts to LEO and beyond and support the commercial sector’s LEO human spaceflight efforts.

Fitting those 10 pounds of potatoes into the sack NASA was expected to have at the time was going to be a challenge, but now the sack is smaller. When Congress completes action on the FY2011 budget, it looks as though NASA will be lucky to keep the $18.7 billion level it had for FY2010, not the $19 billion it requested. Furthermore, its outlook for the next five years is, at best, to remain level at $18.7 billion.

That is the best scenario. Although NASA was allowed to develop its budget plans for the next 5 years on the assumption that its budget will be flat for the next 5 years, the President’s budget request tells a different story, one of decline.

In OMB’s Table 33-1, NASA’s budget is shown dropping to $18.03 billion in FY2013 and $17.97 billion in FY2014 before starting a very slow rise to $18.08 billion in FY2015 and $18.50 billion in FY2016. Longer term projections in that table show NASA rising to $20.91 billion in the year 2021, roughly the same level President Obama projected for FY2015 last year.

Agencies usually are required to plan their out-year budgets to match whatever is in the President’s budget. NASA officials said this year they were nonetheless given permission to plan for a higher budget, level at $18.7 billion, because all projections are notional anyway.

With deficit reduction the overriding concern today, however, the President’s figures may well turn out to be more realistic. As a matter of his policy priorities, last year the President exempted NASA from a freeze on other domestic discretionary spending. This year, there is no such exemption for the agency suggesting a change in the President’s priorities. While space advocates might hope that it is a reflection of the overall effort to reduce federal spending, three other science and research and development agencies got increases in their FY2012 budget requests. The National Science Foundation would get a 13% increase over its FY2010 spending; the National Institutes of Health would increase from $30.8 billion in FY2010 to $31.8 billion requested for FY2012; and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) would rise from $863 million in FY2010 to $1 billion in FY2012. NOAA’s budget also would go up appreciably, from $4.85 billion in FY2010 to $5.5 billion in FY2012, but it is not possible to determine how much of that is for NOAA’s satellite programs with the information released this morning.

The message for NASA seems to be that its activities do not carry the same weight as those other agencies in meeting the President’s “innovate, educate, build” goals. Congressional authorizers who want NASA to move out full force on a new crew space transportation system in addition to pursuing its science, aeronautics and technology development programs, not to mention making the International Space Station a robust national laboratory, are likely to be disappointed. The only certainty facing the agency seems to be that it will be another tense year.

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