NASA’s Budget: Back to the Future – and to Basics

By Keith Cowing
February 5, 2002
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NASA held its annual budget “rollout” briefings on Monday in Washington DC.

After a few introductory remarks by NASA PAO Chief Glenn Mahone, a feel-good video [lo-res | hi-res] was shown – an annual practice at NASA budget rollout presentations. The internal composition of the tape was the same as in previous years – an overview of the agency’s broad goals set against a backdrop of pretty imagery with a techno soundtrack.

It was the opening and the closing that was ironic – grainy imagery and a newsreel-like soundtrack from a NASA film report made in the early 1960’s. I am not sure if the irony was intentional. Indeed the same approach is used in the current TV show “Enterprise” to show people where we came from and where we are going.

Sean O’Keefe has made frequent mention of his affinity for James Webb who served as NASA Administrator in the early to mid-1960’s. Webb, by no means a space expert (initially) once served as President Harry Truman’s budget man – curiously similar to Sean O’Keefe’s background. As such, a momentary look backward would fit into the way many have cast O’Keefe’s place in the precession of NASA Administrators – past and present – as well as his “back to basics” mantra.


Unlike the budget briefings of previous years this one was surprisingly devoid of numbers – this despite O’Keefe’s avowed penchant as a budget wonk for using numbers to describe things.

Instead, this briefing, using the pretext of being a budget rollout, was more of a detailed version of Sean O’Keefe’s emerging vision (yes he seems to have one) for NASA at T+30 days on the job.

In his initial remarks about where he sees NASA headed, O’Keefe said that a “return to basics” and a focus on cutting edge R&D such as was practiced in NASA’s youth is a common theme. As such, watching the video and seeing the NASA of today bracketed between the NASA of yesterday was interesting to say the least.

The White House has requested a small increase in NASA’s budget of less than 1% over it’s FY 2002 budget. The main focus of O’Keefe’s implementation plan for this budget is a renewed focus on core capabilities and requirements i.e., “what are you capable of doing and why do you do things.”

The Game Plan

O’Keefe outlined three basic themes as being the basis for how he intended to approach to implementation of NASA’s FY 2003 budget. “NASA’s $ 15 billion task is exploration and discovery based on targeted priorities “. In so doing, O’Keefe said that he would try to “emphasize a strategic agenda. As an example, he cited the International Space Station (ISS). “The dominant issue on the ISS is to get the core complete baseline request right so as to begin with an integrated mission established as the fundamental baseline.”

Expanding on his view of fixing the ISS program O’Keefe said “the first step as part of program management is to pursue 5 specific objectives:

  1. Prioritize the science and technology agenda for the ISS.

  2. Analyze the remaining engineering challenges. The ISS it is largely operational now but there are still have steps required to complete it.

  3. Financial issues that surround estimating for cost complete. To do that objective is to capture the total cost over what is in place now. An independent assessment as well as internal assessment will be required.

  4. Take a look at the international commitments for the ISS and the effect that new ISS plans have on this.

  5. Understand all other elements that must be considered to support this project – Space Shuttle operations being the most prominent.”

O’Keefe’s second theme involves looking at projects such as the ISS as an integrated facility – one that is integrated across the agency. O’Keefe also looks to consider other technologies as integral to a wide variety of activities across the agency.

The third theme for O’Keefe will be to assess capabilities consistent with the a management agenda. This document contains 5 themes that were developed as part of the President’s Management Agenda. The approach would be to emphasis all five themes, themes that are applicable to all agencies , in a fashion tailored to fit NASA.

Nukes are back

Propulsion is one key area that O’Keefe is leading NASA back into. O’Keefe said “the objectives of space exploration are limited by our capacity to overcome distances – to go to the far reaches of our solar system to observe Pluto for example. At the present rate, if we began today, 17 years from now weÕd start to get information back. Looking at existing current technology we resign ourselves to our current capability.” O’Keefe went on to say we should try to reduce the time needed to conduct missions by “conquering distance faster”. “Power and propulsion alternatives are needed to conquer this so as to allow nearer results than are possible with existing capabilities.” The prime means for achieving these improvements? Nuclear power and propulsion.

The propulsion would be in the form of nuclear reactors generating electricity that would power ion propulsion systems. Think of NASA’s DS-1 and its ion propulsion system on steroids. Nuclear rockets – either launched from Earth or used in space – are not part of NASA’s current plan. Whatever nuclear hardware NASA hoists into space will be done on traditional chemical rockets and will only be activated once it is in space. Moreover, the nuclear material will never be allowed to escape containment either during nominal or emergency operations.

With current solar panel (photovoltaic power) technology their usefulness much beyond the orbit of Mars is marginal. As such, mission to the outer solar system have used RTG (Radio Thermal Generators) for decades. The decay of radioactive materials is used as a steady and predictable source of power. Nuclear power sources have utility in simpler ways too: as heaters. RHUs – Radio Heater Units – were deployed on the Mars Pathfinder mission so as to keep critical components from freezing up.

RTG technology is well developed. Its is also controversial for some people who see these units as a potential risk. In recent years, with the decline in new outer planets programs, and to some extent due to public concern, the use of RTGs has declined. According to Office of Space Science Associate Administrator Ed Weiler there is exactly “one RTG in our inventory”. In order for more RTGs to be built, the production (done in cooperation with the Department of Energy) needs to be restarted. In so doing, Weiler repeated that safety would be the number one concern and that these RTGs could survive any conceivable launch scenario safely.

In describing the ‘old approach’ to planetary exploration that need to be gotten out of, Weiler said “for decades you’d accelerate for a few minutes and thertme/fost – and coast – and coast. Sometimes we’re lucky and we have Jupiter (for a gravitational assist) . That is not the way to do exploration. We currently used covered wagons. We want to develop steam engines to get the locomotives out there to explore the solar system. This is the right thing to do Ð and safety will be job number one.”

When asked if the political climate that surrounds nuclear power in space has changed, O’Keefe said that NASA has ” obligation to look at a range of alternatives. In the nuclear area we have 25-30 years of experience. 20 or so flights have had a nuclear capability. We also need to focus on propulsion. The U.S. has considerable experience in this area. The Navy reactor program has 50 years of experience.

Earmarks – pork by another name

Last year, [former] NASA Administrator Dan Goldin and [soon to be outgoing] NASA Comptroller Mal Peterson stood before a similar briefing and complained about the effect that earmarks (i.e. “pork”) have on NASA’s budget. While NASA’s budget in an overall numeric sense comes very close to what the President requests each year, Congress manages to tweak the details to suit the whims of their constituents. Some of the items are things that one center or another wanted in the budget but couldnÕt do so internally. So they use their congressional representatives to do it for them. Propulsion and SLI work at MSFC is one example where this has been done. In other cases, the items stuck into NASA’s budget have a tenuous connection (at best) to NASA’s mission.

Last year Goldin and Peterson echoed the Bush Administration’s avowed intent to fight this trend saying that earmarks would only be honored for the FY 2001 budget. Lo and behold almost a half billion dollars Atm of earmarks still managed to find their way into NASA’s FY 2002 budget. This year’s budget documents from the White House specifically point out the problems earmarking can cause:

“Many earmarks in NASA’s budget have little to do with the agency’s mission in scientific research, technology development, and exploration. For example, the Congress earmarked NASA’s current budget to fund corporate jets, college dormitories, libraries, and museums. Some especially damaging earmarks divert funds from critical NASA needs and reverse good cost management decisions at NASA.”

When asked if the Administration’s original concern was still valid, O’Keefe did not say overtly that it was. Rather, not taking on specific members of Congress directly, O’Keefe said that it was incumbent upon NASA to better explain what it wants to do – and why it needs to do them – to Congress.

Science and Technology Priorities

One of O’Keefe’s core management tenets is setting up a series of priorities for NASA – and specifically – for the ISS program such that he ISS can be rescoped and focused on the completion of those objectives. The Young Committee report stated that the ISS should be driven by the scientific and technological tasks it was expected to perform. NASA’s Chief Scientist, Kathie Olsen, was recently nominated to a senior position in the White House at the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Meanwhile, no successor has been as Chief Scientist – nor to the other position she has held in an acting capacity for several years: Associate Adinistrator for the Office of Biological and Physical Research – the single largest user of the ISS.

When asked if she would continue to do many of her NASA roles at OSTP, Olsen said that her tasks at NASA spanned all of the enterprises and that she did not try to get into the day to day operations of those enterprises. She said that a similar philosophy would be guiding her work at OSTP. She described her new role as being to “look at the agencies to set up what would be priorities across the agencies and then let the agencies run those activities.”

O’Keefe added jokingly that he was “very fond of Kathie” and that he was angered that his “good friend John Marburger” (the President’s Science Advisor) “took her away.” “I am not happy that Kathie is going but we intended to keep a very close relationship with the President’s Science Office” he said.

Pluto – on again off again

One of the more controversial aspects of the FY 2003 NASA budget is the cancellation of the Pluto-Kuiper and Europa Orbiter missions – i.e. the entire NASA Outer Planets program. This was done in favor of establishing a new “New Frontiers” program that would use advanced propulsion technology with a focus on some themes taken from NASA’s Astrobiology and Origins programs as well as the prioritizations made by the Decadal Review now nearing completion by the planetary science community.

The Pluto Kuiper mission was specifically omitted in the NASA FY 2002 budget submission. A combination of Congressional interest and public outcry led to the reallocation (earmarking) of $30 million by Congress to keep the mission alive. This is far short of $400 million the Administration claims would be needed to actually do the mission.

When asked what would happen if Congress continues to fund the Pluto Kuiper mission, O’Keefe said simply that “our objective is to pursue the budget in the manner we presented it. We hope the logic is apparent to all.”

New Frontiers

The President’s FY 2003 Budget calls for the cancellation of the Outer Planets program ergo the cancellation of both the Pluto-Kuiper mission and the Europa Orbiter mission – and the wholesale transfer of this program’s funds to a new program to be called “New Frontiers”. As described in White House budget documents:

“These missions will be replaced by a revamped planetary program that will incorporate the following principles: clear science priorities that support key goals in under-standing the potential existence of life beyond Earth and the
origins of lifeÉ”

O’Keefe was asked if NASA wants to compete first New Frontiers work by end of FY 2003. O’Keefe handed the question to Ed Weiler who said that NASA was looking to issue an AO (Announcement of Opportunity) – if supported by Congress – sometime in Summer 2003. $15 million would be available for the first round of proposals. All missions would be openly competed and selection of missions would be made some time in CY 2003. Weiler added that New Frontiers is a “Discovery-like” program with a cost cap set on missions. In this case, New Frontiers missions would be capped at around $650 million or about twice the cap imposed on Discovery-class missions.

In a telecon with reporters on 5 February, Weiler elaborated on New Frontiers. “The notion that the nuclear program is being funded out of money taken from the Pluto and Europa missions is false. This is new money.” With regard to the transfer of Outer Planets money to New Frontiers, Weiler said that this has been done “on a dollar for dollar basis.” As such the overall pot of money for New Frontiers should be the same as that previously set aside for the Outer Planets program.

The New Frontiers program will get off to a slow start but will then pick up the pace. According to Weiler, there will be $15 million available in FY2003. That will ramp up to $155 million in FY 2004, $240 in FY 2005 and remain at that rate thereafter in the out years. This will be sufficient to support at least one $650 million mission every three years. The reason that this is getting off the ground slowly is because JPL is being allowed to finish up work on a program which sought to develop generic technologies for the Pluto-Kuiper, Europa, and other outer planets missions.

As for how the New Frontiers program will mesh with the nuclear power and propulsion program, NASA’s Colleen Hartman told reporters that the New Frontier program will not be held back waiting for the nuclear program’s output. As things become available, they will be provided to the New Frontiers program as “a set of tools”.

ISS Cost Issues – Who Pays for what?

The issue of ISS cost problems was raised. When asked what the criteria to “get the ISS off probation” might be, O’Keefe referred back to the 5 basic areas mentioned earlier. “We are trying to look at the ISS as an integrated activity across the agency. We have an obligation to make sure we get it right. ” When asked if budget constraint in the U.S. meant that partner countries might have to pay more of the cost and do less research O’Keefe replied that would “not jump to that conclusion at all.” “Our first objective is to make sure that the core complete is accomplished. We have seen a good plan from the Young Commission. Our intent is to pursue those recommendations.”

In the current approach to refocusing the ISS program the CRV – Crew Return Vehicle – has been put on hold. When asked if the CRV had been “cancelled” O’Keefe replied that there is $20 million set aside for the CRV. He suggested thauttmore “narrow mlue=on focus” for the CRV was called for. He said that NASA needs to look at the CRV ‘s requirements with an eye towards possible use of the CRV “for crew transportation” to orbit . O’Keefe said that a vehicle could emerge from some “known platforms” as well as “other alternatives”.

NASA Comptroller Mal Peterson said that no budget authority has been requested for the CRV. He said “there will be $20 million of work using FY 2002 funds that have been carried over into 2003” and that NASA was not “stopping it dead.” Office of Space Flight AA Fred Gregory added “there is money available for atmospheric work on the X-38 this year” and that there “may be some chances next year” to do this research. He echoed earlier comments about re-looking at the X-38/CRV and that NASA may begin to discuss “a greater capacity [for the CRV] than just to bring [astronauts] home.”

Such a combined set of crew return and crew transport requirements surfaced in the “Crew/Cargo Transfer Vehicle Preliminary Requirements, Space Transportation Architecture Studies Phase III” in late 1999. This topic was also addresed in a House Science Committee hearing.

When asked if other potential sources of technology – including some outside of the U.S. such as France’s proposed Hermes spacecraft – Office of Aerospace Technology AA Sam Venneri said that there is a study underway that will be completed in June 2002 under the auspices of the Space Launch Initiative (SLI) program. Crew transfer and foreign participation are among the topics being considered by the study team. Venneri said that the study would try to “integrate requirements for systems that transport people to orbit as well as for rescue “. Venneri said that this effort ” is a revisit of an integrated space transportation architecture review NASA did several years ago and are doing once again”.

Back to Basics

O’Keefe’s oft-voiced focus on getting NASA back to R&D came up. He said that the established aeronautics and OBPR research objectives “speak to this”. “The math tells you about the resources to be dedicated to that.” He went on to say that “the larger question in my mind is not an absence of interesting ideas – rather it is a question of how to target and select ideas. What limitations exist that science and technology could be overcome so as to allow us to meet other objectives better Ð things that would not otherwise be done anywhere else.”

When asked if NASA was quickening the pace for SLI (Space Launch Initiative) outlays. Sam Venneri replied that NASA was proceeding according to a plan “put in place in coordination with Congress and the White House” and that NASA was “working to a mid-decade decision. The funding stream is what we requested and what we got is consistent with the plan put together a few years ago.”

Not to My Center You Don’t

The issue of field center fates arose. A reporter asked O’Keefe if there would be a transition of current DFRC and LARC management to different type of management structure. O’Keefe said that he did not “want to isolate these two centers. I’d rather talk about all of them. The approach is to foster collaboration and cooperation across centers and to use the core competencies at each centers in a way that is more collaborative. Right now it is more competitive – i.e. which center is the lead center.”

The issue of workforce reductions was raised -atedcifically if any Reductions in Force (RIFs) were envisioned by O’Keefe. O’Keefe said that as ISS demands for engineering requirements “start to taper off” that this is where “the consequences would occur. It is not as if this was not forecast at this juncture in the ISS program.” When asked to clarify – specifically if such changes would happen fast or more slowly – O’Keefe said ” It would be premature to speculate. I would like to predict unlimited success and victory in doing core complete and that going on to further expansion driven by the science and technology agenda. It would be irresponsible for me to suggest that we should wind down anything beyond what is already planned. Let’s see what the success rate is – get core complete into place – and then engage in a debate on what might follow thereafter.”

Shuttle Privatization and Flight Rates

When asked to expand on this question and address the use of co-location of other agencies onsite at DFRC and LARC, O’Keefe replied that this was happening at ARC as well. “This is all part of SRR (Strategic Resources Review) – how to leverage infrastructure with what we already have.”

O’Keefe was then asked if the FY 2003 budget reflects plans to reduce the Space Shuttle flight rate from 6 or 7 down to 4 flights per year – and what impact this might have on KSC and other centers. O’Keefe replied that the 4 flight per year rate was one suggested by the Young Committee as being necessary to support the ISS. More flights are possible. O’Keefe said that additional fights would have to be driven by requirement such as science and technology research on the ISS or by things such as Hubble Space Telescope visits. “The number will be based upon demand.”

Several teams have been developed within NASA to look at the economics and policy aspects of Shuttle Privatization. When asked to elaborate on these groups, O’Keefe said that he’d “rather not” with the reason being that they were looking at “a range of competitive options.”

Taking it to the Hill

Overall, this performance by Sean O’Keefe was similar to the multiple appearances he has made in the weeks before – and after becoming NASA Administrator. He is short on many specifics and openly admits that he is still taking input from a variety of sources. As time progresses he moves deeper “into the weeds” as Capitol Hill staffers like to say.

On 27 February O’Keefe will face the full House Science Committee. In a speech to the FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference on 5 February, House Science Committee Chair Boehlert said:

“The Science Committee is going to be taking a close look at NASA this year as we write a NASA reauthorization bill that will provide guidance for all the agency’s programs … Our goal is to have the Science Committee report out a NASA bill by the end of April. Realistically, that schedule could slip, but I do want to have a bill out of Committee no later than the Memorial Day recess. That should leave enough time for both House and Senate action this year.”

“Another issue we’ll have to address in the reauthorization is a fourth item needed for a healthy commercial launch industry – up-to-date and high quality launch sites. Without question, we have to do something to rehabilitate Cape Canaveral. The details need to be worked out, but we can’t let a place that once symbolized all that was shiny and futuristic decay into a scrap yard.”<P>

When asked to elaborate on his prepared remarks, Rep. Boehlert referred to the present condition of the launch facilities at Cape Canaveral as “an embarrassment”. When Boehlert was asked if he would recommend to the Bush Administration that the refurbishment of Cape Canaveral and Vandenburg launch facilities be set as a national priority Boehlert said “Yes.”

None of this is in NASA’s budget plans.

In reacting to NASA’s FY 2003 budget, ranking House Science Committee Minority Member Ralph Hall said:

“The budget prepared by OMB for NASA raises more questions than it answers. It cuts funding for important Shuttle safety upgrades while unsettling the existing Shuttle workforce with vague Shuttle privatization proposals. And sadly, it continues down the ill-considered path of slashing the Space Station research budget by $1 billion and freezing the Station program at a level that will cripple its ability to support research and will fail to meet our commitments to our International Partners.”

This is clearly somewhat contrary to what O’Keefe would have NASA do.

As such, Sean O’Keefe is going to be getting a lot of advice when he starts to dive into the marketing of this budget. Thus far his reception within and outside of NASA has been generally rather positive. The true test of his managerial and political skill will come when the smiles turn into frowns – inside and outside the agency.

Related Links

  • 15 January 2002: Sean O’Keefe Sworn in Amidst the Rockets, SpaceRef
  • 8 January 2002: Mr. O’Keefe Meets the Press, SpaceRef
  • 2 January 2002: Message from NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe
  • 1 January 2002: The Bean Counter and the Moon Walker: Pathways to Space Vision – Part 2: A Bean Counter’s Tale, Spacelift Washingon, SpaceRef
  • 18 December 2001: The Bean Counter and the Moon Walker: Pathways to Space Vision – Part 1: Buzz Aldrin and the Quest for Reusable Space, Spacelift Washingon, SpaceRef
  • 16 December 2001: The O’Keefe Era is About to Begin at NASA, SpaceRef
  • Budget Information

  • 4 February 2002: Budget of the United States Government – Fiscal Year 2003, OMB
  • 4 February 2002: National Aeronautics and Space Administration FY 2003, NASA
  • 4 February 2002: NASA FY 2003 Budget Narratives, NASA HQ

  • 4 February 2002:NASA FY 2003 Budget, NASA HQ
  • 4 February 2002: NASA Budget Overview Text, (Adobe Acrobat)
  • 4 February 2002: NASA Detailed Budget breakdown appendix, (Adobe Acrobat)
  • SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.