NASA's FY 2013 Budget: A Quick Snapshot

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Charles Dickens once wrote "It was the best of times, It was the worst of times." Depending on where you work in NASA-funded space exploration and utilization, you are either angered or relieved, depending on where your piece of NASA's FY 2013 budget is concerned.

Despite the usual uplifting and forward-looking prose that one often sees in a Federal agency's budget presentations, NASA has been given a sharp kick in some places and a confident push in others. While the top line i.e. total budget amount varies little from the previous budget, its the details that count. For starters, no increase means a cut since there is no overall accounting for inflation. But get in line - the whole government is dealing with this budgetary environment.

Oddly, NASA and the White House love to use the word "affordable" in times of "austerity" but bailing out the Webb Space Telescope is anything but "affordable" and throwing all of your rescue resources at one mission doesn't smack of "austerity" - but rather of crass politics pointing in the direction the State of Maryland's congressional delegation.

Specifically, NASA has been asked to pay for its chronic inability to manage the James Webb Space Telescope. It is being asked to take that money out of its own hide - which is hard to argue with since the agency is responsible for this mess to begin with. Half of the most recent $1 billion Webb cost overrun will be taken out of a variety of agency activities. The other half will come out of NASA's Space Science Mission Directorate (SMD). SMD's planetary division takes the brunt of this.

Briefing charts say that this budget "Restructures future long-term Mars missions to better integrate our science and human Mars exploration efforts" but in reality these euphemisms cover up the fact that NASA's future plans for exploring Mars are all but eviscerated. NASA's participation in future missions to Mars including work with ESA are now on the chopping block. Yet another international partnership for NASA to walk away from.

To be certain, the Mars Science Laboratory "Curiosity", now en route to Mars, was $1 billion over budget and delayed by 2 years the previous self-induced budget mess at SMD. The MSL situation certainly distorted NASA's planetary exploration budget. But now SMD has gone and allowed yet another mammoth cost overrun to develop (almost unnoticed until it was too late) and the resultant damage has spread across the agency. Yet if you listen to the former Associate Administrator for SMD, Ed Weiler, under whom both of these messes occurred, it wasn't his fault. Oh well, I guess these things just happen on their own.

On the positive side, NASA's commercial crew and cargo activities have fared rather well ($830 million in FY 2013) and the agency continues to have a large advanced technology budget ($699 million). Both of these areas could, if continued support is offered in the years ahead, change much of the way that NASA does business. And dare we hope, possibly chepaer? But as has always been the case, these "nice to have" budgets all too often become piggy banks for projects that overrun their budgets.

However, despite the new commercial focus and the prospect of commercially-provided heavy lift capabilities, NASA continues to pour money into its Space Launch System ($1.88 billion in FY 2013). Despite the inherent capabilities of the SLS, NASA hasn't defined any specific missions for the rocket - just ideas of what it could or might do. In other words "we'll get back to you on that".

With regard to education, NASA briefing charts say "Developing and inspiring the next generation of explorers through STEM education activities throughout NASA's programs" and that "NASA will align the Education Portfolio (Office of Education, Mission Directorate and Center activities) with the priorities and strategies in the NSTC Co-STEM 5-Year Strategic Plan". Indeed, this morning, in rolling out his budget, President Obama made frequent mention of the importance of education. Alas, NASA's education budget will be cut from $136 million in FY 2012 to $100 million in FY 2013 i.e. a substantial cut- despite the rhetoric.

This budget is just the beginning of a conversation. The past several years have seen budgetary roller coaster rides as the new norm. Add in possible future cuts due to other, broader budgetary issues, congressional push back, and the extra combustible politics that go with a re-election, and mush of what is in this proposed budget will morph before all is said and done.

That said, it is clear that NASA still hasn't figured out what it wants to do -or why. Absent a clear, strategic plan, any budget is O.K. since you can just change the briefing charts when political winds shift or Congressional hearings loom.

Is this any way to explore space?

NASA FY 2013 Budget Information

Update: What's rather amazing is how little information Charlie Bolden released and how many substantive questions he dodged during this briefing. Either he doesn't know the answers or won't admit that he does. I can't imagine that he knows so little about this topic. The most startling question he refused to answer was what specific programs were affected by cuts to pay for the James Webb Space Telescope cost overrun. His CFO did not bother to volunteer an answer either. THAT is scary.


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