NASA’s FY 2001 Budget: The Shape of Things to Come? – or Too Soon to Tell?

By Keith Cowing
February 7, 2000
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Press conference summary and commentary

by Keith Cowing, Editor, NASA Watch

[07 February 2000] NASA pulled out all the stops today as it rolled out details of its first budget increase in 7 years at a press conference. NASA’s FY 2001 budget, as proposed by the White House, would be $14.035 billion – an increase of $435 million over the FY 2000 budget of $13.6 billion.

The conference began with a NASA PR tape which, according to Dan Goldin, was intended to convey the emotions that go with the exciting things that NASA does – both successes and failures. The video was in essence a feel-good motivational video seemingly composed of all of NASA’s recent computer animations with a voice over by Dan Goldin. The tape devoted approximately 15 seconds to NASA’s recent Mars mission failures with some images of clearly disappointed JPL employees with their heads in their hands. After it was over, Goldin added that he feels that “what makes NASA strong is not how it responds to success, but rather how it responds to failure.”

After the tape was finished, Goldin said “this is the first time in 7 years that NASA’s budget is really going up”. The budget submitted by the President for FY 2001 asks for a $435 million increase over the $13.6 billion NASA received for FY 2000. Goldin noted that there would be a total of $2 billion in increases to NASA’s budget in 2005 when compared to this year’s budget. Goldin noted that NASA had achieved its goal of transforming itself from an operations agency to a research and development agency. As an example of this he cited the fact that NASA’s “science investment” went from 31% of its budget up to 41% and that he expected to see it increase soon to 51%.

One of the largest parts of the budget is funds dedicated to Space Shuttle safety. The FY 2001 budget request included $600 million – a number that Goldin claims will eventually amount to $2.1 billion over the next 6 years. According to Goldin these safety modifications will assure that NASA will be able to fly the Space Shuttle for at least another decade and “nearly double its safety” in so doing.

There will also be an increase in RLV (Reusable Launch Vehicle) programs with $6 billion projected to be spent between FY 2001 and FY 2005. When asked to break this down in detail, Goldin noted that approximately $4.5 billion would be spent between 2000 and 2005 of focused technology programs with $600 million spent on pathfinder projects. $1.3 billion will be spent over this time period on supporting technology programs.

On the issue of the CRV (Crew Return Vehicle) Goldin said that $800 million will be transferred from Human Spaceflight to cover the CRV. He added that NASA will be doing some trade studies on various architectures with a focus on whether requirements for a CRV and a CCTV (Crew Cargo Transfer Vehicle) could be met by some sort of integrated program. When asked to comment on the X-33 program Goldin would only say that NASA has a contract with Lockheed Martin and that he “fully expects that Lockheed Martin will carry out their contract to completion”.

With regard to NASA’s Next Generation Launch Vehicle program, Goldin said that some architectural studies will include competition and technology demonstration such that by 2005 NASA can make some real decisions regarding NASA’s Next Generation Launch Vehicle. When asked to elaborate on the Shuttle safety upgrades, Goldin said that these upgrades needed to be completed by the middle of the decade and that he had asked the National Research Council to review these upgrades to be certain that they were being done for safety’s sake – and not to make the Space Shuttle more competitive in a commercial sense. Goldin added that he felt tit would be fine if USA wanted to make an investment of its own money to make the Shuttle system more competitive commercially.

In a move that would have surprised people just a few years ago, Goldin announced that NASA will be adding approximately 2,000 (actual number is 1,850) new hires in the next 2 years. Once expected attrition is taken into account this will result in a net increase to NASA’s workforce of 550. Goldin noted that the end result of his Red Team/Blue Team Review activities several years ago was to move towards a downsized NASA of approximately 17,500 employees. $600 million will now be spent on these new hires and various support systems.

Goldin noted that he wasn’t just going to hire a bunch of new full time employees. Instead he said that NASA will seek to form new “strategic partnerships” with high tech and aerospace manufacturers and with academia. He added that he was going to look at part time and contract hires such that people could come from/return to the private and academic sectors and take their newfound knowledge with them.

When asked by a reporter if this increase – one that will add a number of people hired to do safety work on the Shuttle program – was an indication that too many people had been cut or that Shuttle safety had been compromised, Goldin replied sharply that Shuttle safety had never been compromised, that the issue had been monitored, and that a decision had been made to stabilize the safety program at 1999 levels. These new hires were proposed as a way to ensure that there was an adequate skill mix in the future.

Goldin was asked to explain why NASA’s budget had gone up this year, after a 7-year decline, and why the increase was less than that given to NSF (17%). Goldin replied that “we don’t play relativistic analysis here”. He noted “any time more money goes to science it is wonderful.” Goldin noted in his presentation that NASA will be seeing an infusion of news funds for what called “Revolutionary Technology” with a focus on biotechnology, nanotechnology, and information technology. Another reporter asked if this budget increase had anything to do with this being an election year. Goldin dismissed that notion and replied that he had recently had lunch with the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and that he felt that both the White House and Congress were generally supportive of everything that was in this budget.

As to why there was an increase in NASA’s budget this year (as opposed to previous years) Goldin said that he thinks there is a recognition in the White House that NASA has restructured itself along the lines it promised back in 1992, and that this restructuring is now complete. He added that this budget’s increase includes requests for 15 new starts and a focus on considering NASA’s next generation of launch vehicles and that these new starts build upon the restructuring that NASA has accomplished.

When asked to explain the wisdom of sending additional money to Russia (Russian Program Assurance) when Russia has problems meeting its obligations, Goldin replied that this money was “spent in the U.S.” to prepare for contingencies. Goldin then turned around and admitted that some of the money would actually be spent in Russia for two items – $12 million for a pressure dome that and $2 million for an APAS that will allow the ICM to dock with the FGB. Goldin claimed that this was going to be done because it was cheaper than trying to recreate these capabilities in the U.S.

Goldin was then asked if there were any technical or contractual reasons why the Russians could not consider using the Service Module for some purpose other than the ISS program – perhaps to dock with Mir. Goldin replied that he knew of no reason why they would want to do so, and that he had every indication that the Russians would honor their commitments to the ISS program.

Goldin was asked to reply to comments made last year by Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin that a Kennedy-like commitment was needed before we send humans to mars. Goldin did not answer the question directly, but instead noted that many things needed to be done before plans are made to send humans to Mars and that NASA needs to be certain that this can be done at a cost that does not interfere with other national priorities.

When asked if the new budget would give Goldin the flexibility to react to the findings of the Mars Independent Assessment team, Goldin replied that he did not want to sway the team’s findings, but that he was confident that the budget gave him the flexibility he needed including the need to attend to some issues relating to the infrastructure of NASA’s Mars exploration program.

Editor’s comments: NASA’s budget is being increased. Clear thought is being given to hiring so as to preserve the skill mix needed to run a safe and productive space program. Given that the budget also seems to have a focus on what Goldin described as cutting-edge, fundamental (he likes to say “revolutionary” a lot) research, it should be welcomed with open arms by those concerned with the severity of cuts made over the past 7 years.

The fact that thought is being given to a common CRV/CCTV architecture, one that seems to include commercial options, is also noteworthy. Sadly, saying that NASA might be in a position by 2005 to consider a competition for NASA’s Next Generation Launch vehicle is validation of the fact that NASA is still 5 years away from the goal set in 1995 by the White House whereby NASA was supposed to have been ready to make such a decision in 2000.

There is also a matter of timing. This increased NASA budget is being submitted at the end of the Clinton Administration’s second term. Curiously, during both terms, the budget decreased every year. Only the first year of this Administration saw an increase – and that was because of the first budget (largely a product of the Bush Administration) inherited by the Clinton Administration. Indeed, this budget increase only gets NASA close to where it was (adjusted for inflation) when the cutting began.

None of the political appointees in the Administration will likely have to deal with all of the consequences of seeing this budget through to reality. Sources in Congress and industry have suggested that this was a budget designed to make Al Gore look more attractive as a candidate. Others suggest that it is the result of the White House taking heat for last year’s threats against NASA’s budget. Few disagree, however, that regardless of the motivation, an increase was long overdue.

None the less, any projections out through – and past – FY 2001 need to be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism. A new Administration needs to be in place before reasonable extrapolations can be made as to where America’s space program is headed – and what sort of budgetary support is required.

Dan Goldin got caught up in a bit of a frenzy of optimism. This budget covers one fiscal year – FY 2001. Yet Goldin repeatedly flashed around budget increases in the billions spread out over 4 and 5 years in the future. How someone can stand there with a straight face and do this with out knowing who will be President (and what their stance is on NASA and its budget) seems to be a bit misleading – and presumptuous to me. Again, it is easy to make these projections when you don’t have to be around to worry about making them happen. Then again, after faithfully serving as a cheerleader for NASA’s 7 year budgetary decline at the hands of the White House, something that even Goldin grew tired of, I suppose he should be given some slack as he enjoys the rare opportunity of describing a budget that is now growing.

While no press conference can cover everything, I did find it important to note that little or no mention was made of the real problems facing the Space Station. Only in some briefings given to Congress does NASA note that the ISS portion of the FY 2001 budget is based upon Assembly Sequence Rev E from June 1999 – an assembly sequence that shows the Service Module in orbit by now. This obviously gives NASA an escape clause of sorts should things with Russia get worse. Only when raised by reporters did Goldin speak about ISS – and at no time was any mention was made about this critical budgetary caveat. Clearly, budgets are going to be affected by a late summer launch of the Service Module.

Finally, no mention whatsoever was made of NASA’s commercialization activities – something NASA was promoting to any one who’d listen just a few short months ago – often couched in terms of saving money.

All in all, the people of NASA, and those interested in America’s space program, should certainly be happy that the budget (at least as proposed) is increasing, with some apparent linkage to merit derived from NASA’s performance and capabilities. However, given the miserable support for NASA in the past by the White House, and the malicious attempt by congressional appropriators to gut NASA’s budget in 1999, those concerned with space exploration need to pay close attention to events over the next year. Therein lies the real answer as to where we’re going (or not going) in space – and how we will or won’t get there.

Related pages

  • NASA’s FY 2001 Budget, OMB (Adobe Acrobat format)
  • FY 2001 Budget Information, NASA HQ

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