The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) unveiled its portion of the US$3.9-trillion U.S. budget for the 2015 fiscal year. It’s a maintenance regime—keeping up most current programs, and reaching, however tentatively, for Mars and Europa, while cutting back a bit on some programs to watch the stars and monitor Earth’s climate.
The basic budget plan is flat: It keeps current programs (or most of them) going— but at $17.5 billion, the spending package is slightly lower than the $17.6-billion appropriation for the current year; the reduction keeps NASA’s budget in line with the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 (BBA), the compromise worked out in December to avoid the deeper cuts of sequestration.
There’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon, though. The U.S. budget also includes a $56-billion Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative (OGSI). The proposal lays out what the U.S. could do, if Congress allows the additional spending—off the BBA books, as it were—to be funded out of “tax loophole closers and spending reforms.” The goals include restoring the country’s “global edge in basic research,” and NASA could, pols-willing, come in for an additional $886 million to support new and expanded missions.
So the space agency’s 2015 budget comes in two tiers, like automobile options: the $17.5-billion standard package, and the $18.4-billion OGSI package.
The standard package continues programs like these:
- $645 million for James Web Space Telescope (delivering backplane components in 2015 to keep the sky-eye on track for a 2018 launch);
- $3.05 billion to extend the lifetime of the International Space Station (ISS) through at least 2024 (and, in the nearer term, to keep science and technology packages delivered to the ISS working 70% of the time in 2015);
- $848 million supporting commercial space flight (beginning to certify private-sector launches in 2015 and completing the process by 2017);
- $2.78 billion to restore NASA’s ability to put human beings in orbit, completing design review of the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion (“America’s new spacecraft for human exploration”) payload system.;
- $ 1.77 billion for Earth sciences to “improve climate modeling, weather prediction, and natural hazard mitigation”;
- $1.28 billion for planetary sciences, including an Asteroid Redirect Mission to capture a space rock by 2025, a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s, and preliminary planning for sending a probe to Europa, the Jovian moon that may hide liquid water—and life—beneath its crust of ice. (The movie Europa Report notwithstanding, there is no indication that the probes will be designed to withstand attacks by giant killer squid).
Some existing programs will fall to the budget axe. The most visible is the $85 million annual American share of SOFIA, the star-crossed U.S.-German Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. NASA has tried to withdraw from the aircraft-based telescope program before, dropping it from the FY 2007 budget before a review rescued it. If the co-developer, the German Aerospace Center, doesn’t pick up the SOFIA’s slack, the innovative telescope and the Boeing 747SP jet heavily modified to carry it could be mothballed. Also trimmed are the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-3) and the Pre-Aerosol, Clouds and Ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission.
The $886-million OGSI option package includes items like:
- $187 million to support planning for new missions and extending existing missions;
- $100 million in space technology research, to develop things like life support systems, composite structures, robotics, and manufacturing and constructing structures in space.
- $451 million to speed up development of the SLS, Orion, and commercial crew certification efforts;
- $94 million to build a Langley Research Center Measurement Science Laboratory.
Were it up to me, of course, I’d go for the deluxe package. (After all, who could resist a Measurement Science Laboratory with chrome rims?) There are miles to go, though, before any of this virtual money gets turned into actual authorizations.
Image: Ted Stryk/JPL/NASA