NASA’s New Budget: Treading Water

By Keith Cowing
February 6, 2006
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NASA’s New Budget: Treading Water

NASA FY 2007 Budget information (overview), OMB
Detailed FY 2007 NASA budget information, OMB (PDF)

Today, NASA will unveil the Fiscal Year 2007 budget request that the White House will be submitting to Congress. While NASA will get an increase over the FY 2006 budget – the increase is only 1%. In an overall sense, NASA’s budget does not keep up with inflation – thus leaving the agency barely able to tread water. Moreover, NASA is getting far less than NASA had originally hoped for – and much less than the White House had planned just two short years ago.

NASA’s FY 2006 budget was $16.623 billion. The budget the President has requested for FY 2007 is $16.792 billion. This does not reflect $350 million provided in FY 2006 as emergency funding for Katrina related expenses.

$16.792 billion – or a 1% increase – is a lot less than NASA wanted. It is also a lot less than Congress was hoping for.

What NASA – and Congress Wanted

In a letter from multiple members of Congress on 9 December 2005, the following concern was expressed:

“This request is even more vital as we understand that OMB is currently on a course that will under-fund the Shuttle program by $3 to $6 billion between FY07 to FY10. This would mean the immediate retirement of the Shuttle Atlantis and cut from the needed 19 shuttle missions to between 8 and 11 missions. This action by OMB would completely contradict the Administration’s own space policy and appears to be driven by nothing but budgetary considerations, without regard to the massive policy ramifications and the long-term negative effects on your Vision for Space Exploration.”

They also noted that :

“… OMB’s plan will fly in the face of both House and Senate versions of pending NASA Authorization legislation currently in conference, which will fully fund the Shuttle and the entire Exploration Vision. OMB is on a course to take defeat from the jaws of victory by completely contradicting your own stated priorities and what will almost certainly become the law of the land in the authorization bill.”

NASA clearly agreed with Congress and was looking for a hefty increase for FY 2007. In November 2005 NASA Chief Financial Officer Gwen Sykes put a chart in her handout to the NASA Advisory Council which showed the highlights of a NASA Budget Request to OMB for FY 2007. According to this chart NASA had asked (or hoped) for $17.897 billion – an 8.8% increase over FY 2006 according to that chart.

What OMB Decided

Alas, such a large budget increase was simply not what OMB had in mind. This large “over-guide” request – and the clear sense that it was a non-starter – was mentioned in a 17 November 2005 letter from Mike Griffin to OMB Director Bolton in which Griffin admits:

“Two Months ago, I submitted the FY 2007 budget request for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) that was over-guide for the Space Shuttle and Space Station programs. Since then, NASA has worked closely with your staff and others in the Executive Office of the President to address various policy and program options in order to keep NASA’s overall budget within current budget guidelines while ensuring that the Agency address the goals and priorities set forth by the President’s Vision for Space Exploration.”

Despite continued volleys back and forth between NASA and OMB, OMB was going to get its way in the end. NASA’s budget was not going to even approach the initial, far more rosy predictions that were circulated when the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) was announced in January 2004. Yet NASA was still going to embark on a plan to retire the shuttle, build new spacecraft, and send humans back to the Moon. With a budget that is becoming increasingly constrained, the money has to come from somewhere. That “somewhere” is all the other things NASA does.

The Money Has to Come From Somewhere

One of the hardest areas hit will be NASA’s aeronautics programs. These cuts are not just of OMB’s making – Mike Griffin wanted to make them as well. In her 29 November 2005 charts, Gwen Sykes showed that NASA was proposing to cut aeronautics by 14% ($113 million) between FY 2006 and FY 2007. In the President’s budget OMB wants to cut it by $159.7 million.

Another area to be affected – albeit in comparative slow motion to aeronautics cuts – is Space Science. While using throw away lines such as “Science is one of NASA’s crown jewels” in briefings to journalists, NASA’s budget – and these internal letters and charts – paint a much different picture. Moreover, the budget future for space science is much different than was envisioned when the VSE was announced just two years ago.

Stating that “the rate of growth for science previously planned for run out from FY 2006 is not sustainable” NASA sources revealed that NASA is now going to see only a 1.5% increase in space science for FY 2007 with projected increases of just 1% in the next five years. When you factor in inflation, this is negative budget growth.

In his 17 November 2005 letter Griffin stated:

“NASA’s preferred approach to the FY 2007 budget, within current top line constraints, is to hold NASA’s Science budget fixed at FY 2006 levels for the next five years in order to allow for continued assembly of the International Space Station with the Space Shuttle until its retirement in 2010 and to provide the funds needed to develop the Crew Exploration Vehicle and launch systems by 2012.”

In essence, this would not allow any increase for inflation and would amount to a de facto decrease in space science funding over the five fiscal years beginning with FY 2007. In addition, as explicitly stated in this letter, the reason for doing this is to implement various human spaceflight aspects of the VSE.

This is in sharp contrast to what Griffin more or less pledged in a press conference on 20 September 2005 when he said:

“Well, good question. I think I just said this was not about taking money from the science programs for human space flight and it’s not. The science program has not–in our forward planning, we do not take one thin dime out of the science program in order to execute this architecture. It is about re-directing what we do in the human space flight program.”

The net result of this approach to limiting space science – and the internal rationale given by Griffin – clearly shows that space science will be set on a deliberate decline so as to allow human spaceflight to be more fully funded.

The Real Costs of Flying the Shuttle

In preparing its FY 2007 budget request NASA was faced with mountain evidence that the true cost of returning the shuttle to flight – and costs associated with flying the fleet until 2010 were grossly underestimated. This issue was discussed in an internal NASA email from 31 August 2005.

During the summer and fall repeated interactions between NASA and OMB looked at various options for how many shuttle flights were feasible- and desired. At one point a memo by Paul Shawcross at OMB called for no more than 15 space shuttle flights before the fleet is retired in 2010.

In another email from 31 August 2005 Mike Griffin admitted:

“But no matter; the end result is, we have to figure out the run out for the ’07 budget, and we know we need about $6 B more than we have in the budget, for whatever set of historical reasons, which now do not matter. No harm, no foul, to anyone as far as I’m concerned. All that matters is figuring out, as best we can, what we do from here.”

In October 2005 Griffin directed William Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Space Operations how to develop a budget for FY 2007, beginning with this observation:

“In looking back at our transition efforts over the summer, I find that I have not yet fully stepped up to me responsibilities as Administrator. In particular, it is imperative that we provide an in-guide option for the Office of Management and Budget for FY 2007. We can request over-guide consideration, but we must first “answer the mail”. Most of the challenges to doing this lie in Space Operations. It is incumbent on us to develop an executable option, or face the risk of a less desirable option being imposed upon us. You and I have discussed this at some length in the weeks since you have assumed the helm of SOMD, but we haven’t managed to find a plan that meets the requirements.”

It would be several months before Griffin would publicly admit the $6 billion shortfall figure. He did so in an appearance before the House Science Committee on 3 November 2005 when he finally admitted the obvious:

ADMINISTRATOR GRIFFIN: Relative to the ’06 budget request, we are, I would say, several billion dollars short in the Shuttle operations line. I would remind the Committee that the out-years projections for Shuttle operations costs when they were made at the time, a couple of years ago now, were labeled as placeholders, that we did not fully understand on the administration side, we did not fully understand what it was going to take in the discipline and orderly and effective way in 2010. We have now looked at that over the summer as part of the Shuttle Station operations exercise. We believe we understand that, and it is several billion dollars more —

REPRESENTATIVE GORDON: Would it be fair to say in the 3-to-6 range?

ADMINISTRATOR GRIFFIN: I would say the 3-to-5 range.

REPRESENTATIVE GORDON: Three-to-5 range. Okay.

How NASA is going to cover the $3, 5, or 6 billion shortfall (take your pick) is not totally clear. Moreover, how NASA is going to pay for a heavy lift launch vehicle is also not completely clear – although a hint is shown in out year budgets. In presentations to reporters, future NASA budgets show $3.651 billion for the shuttle in FY 2010 and only $146.7 million in FY 2011. It is in FY 2011 where NASA says that the initial heavy launch vehicle funding will start. NASA also says that it has added $3 billion to address the $3-6 billion shortfall – but that still leaves perhaps $3 billion that has not been covered.

The Real Cost

In seeking to achieve what a NASA briefer called “a proper balance of workload across NASA” the agency managed to get 650 people to take buyouts in 2005. Job fairs handled another 100 people. According to a NASA briefer, NASA is seeking to address the challenge of removing around 1,000 additional employees from its workforce in FY 2007.

The last option on the list is stated on briefing charts as “targeted reduction in force (as a last resort) with statutory constraints.”

At the end of the day, while these budget shifts will result in programmatic changes and mission cancellations, the blunt reality is that in the final calculus, a large number of people will have to leave their jobs at NASA.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.