NASA's FY 2002 Budget: Challenges and Opportunities

morphing plane NASA's Administrator and its Chief Comptroller met with reporters today to discuss NASA's FY 2002 budget - the first NASA budget of the Bush Administration. Unlike 7 of the 8 previous years, wherein the NASA budget was cut, this year's budget increases. The increase comes at a price, however. As in previous years, NASA has some tough decisions to make.

Unlike previous years, however, NASA is both being directed to live within its means - and given the freedom and discretion to make some difficult decisions to accomplish that direction. During the Clinton Administration, NASA was expected to do more and more - with less and less - all the while burdened with projects with considerable White House political investment (Triana, X-33) and those with underlying foreign policy agendas (Russia's participation in the ISS). Now, NASA is being told by the White House that Congressional pork (earmarks) is a thing of the past and that it is perfectly OK to shut projects down if need be.

With this budget - and the direction given to NASA - the Bush Administration seems to be intent upon cleaning house - canceling programs that just weren't going to pay off (X-33, X-34); containing worthwhile programs that have gotten out of control (ISS); and fencing off these problems from the many other programs NASA needs to carry out (Space and Earth science). Only time will tell if this attempt at reform is something the Bush Administration will have the political patience to support and the tenacity to nurture as Congress tries to skew things to suit their constituents back home.

There was a little discomfort for everyone at today's press conference. For those who were paying attention, however, there was also ample opportunity to consider the exploration of new territory.

A Glimpse of Opportunity

The conference opened with a typical NASA rah rah tape with all of the eye candy focusing on the things it has accomplished in the past year. Mixed in with all of the traditional shots of astronauts in white cloth spacesuits, Hubble snapshots, cylindrical rockets and space station modules, and gold mylar-covered spacecraft , was something a bit alien: a rather smooth and organic aerodynamic form that changed shape in a most un-airplane like way as it flew.

This aerospace vehicle has a shape somewhere between that of a melting Dove Bar and a worn bar of soap - one that was designed to change shape or "morph" so as to exert biological control features. Wings spread out for low speed flight (for added lift) and morph backwards for high speed flight (for less drag). Pores open in the wing surfaces, and small flaps move about like feathers on the wing's trailing edge to fine tune upward and downward movement. Synthetic tendons and muscles move underneath a skin of sorts - one laid atop a synthetic, dynamic skeleton. All of this so as to allow form to follow function and adapt the wing to the desired shape for the portion of the flight regime it was in. As this flying shape lands - the tips of the wings split - as would a bird's feathers - so as to dampen the turbulent vortices that form at low speeds. In essence, this vehicle would fly like a bird because it would be built like like a bird.

Dan Goldin has an interest in something he sometimes calls "biomimetics" i.e. developing human-made systems that mimic one or more aspects of how biological evolution has tackeled various engineering tasks. In seeking to learn from Biology, Goldin often refers to his hope of developing software that "heals itself", structures that adapt to loads as do muscle and bone, and computing systems that use genomic algorithms and do so using biologically derived organic compounds. This flying vehicle would seem to embody all of these concepts.

The guest appearance of this vehicle today was mostly symbolic - and fit in with Goldin's interest in the blurring the lines that he sees between aero- and astro-vehicles. He cautioned everyone that this was just a concept of a concept - and that we should not expect to see video of one flying any time soon. It did, however, point to a path that the Bush Administration seems to be pushing NASA along: ending or curtailing projects that have either delivered on most of their intended tasks - or ones which do not offer a leap in technology commensurate with their funding.

Instead, Goldin said that NASA would be looking to leapfrog over many current technologies. He tried to equate the cuts in current aeronautics programs with the fact that these freed-up funds (around $550 million) would be reinvested back into these new, revolutionary research programs. To a varying extent, this theme surfaced in a number of NASA's programs as described by Goldin today.

Ok Dan, that's fun stuff - but what about jobs at my field center?

As is usually the case at a NASA press conference, after a round of questions are taken at NASA HQ, reporters at each of NASA's field centers get to ask questions. In a steady succession, reporters from Marshall Space Flight Center, Glenn Research Center, Langley Research Center, and then Ames Research Center asked (in varying ways) what the FY 2002 budget would mean for their center.

Each time this parochialism emerged, Goldin seemed to get a little more annoyed. He chastised people at the centers for thinking of their own concerns first , saying instead that this budget was meant to be for the entire agency's goals -and that he hoped that the centers would not seek to get funds to keep projects simply to keep their own centers going. Goldin did single out one center - Ames - citing the way that the folks at ARC had turned things around saying that the people at ARC "will be writing history -not reading it."

The roles and missions - and tasks - assigned to each field center are going to be under review - once again. Goldin did not spell out a formal process (or give it a name ala "Zero Base Review," "Red Team/Blue Team," etc.) or imply a firm timescale for the changes that lie ahead. Instead, he said that there will be an ongoing assessment of what each center does, the overlap between one center and another, and how all of this meshes into NASA's new direction.

He said that there will "some rearrangement" and that the process would not focus on the old way of doing things i.e. to make sure things were distributed equally among various field centers. Instead he said that NASA will be looking at the trade offs between "keeping an aging infrastructure in place vs developing new capabilities".

Goldin went on to elaborate saying that NASA had to look at whether keeping facilities that are 40 to 60 years old with declining return was really worth the funds when new, different approaches might yield more results. He also said that the approach to be used would look away from having centers work on a collection of small disjointed programs, and move more towards a focused vision. He also said that "NASA is about the future of America's space program - not about jobs at any one center." In other words people's job descriptions may be changing.

Aeronautics Overhaul in Store

Goldin said that the clearest evidence of this new approach was what was going to happen in the aeronautics enterprise. Goldin described changes in the aeronautics program as being rather radical. Instead of being a separate enterprise, he spoke of having things done in an integrated fashion. There won’t be separate aeronautics and space research programs, but rather united ones that looked at issues that spanned both ends of the spectrum that spans air and space. One of the projects to be cut is the rotocraft research at GRC. Goldin said that this effort had achieved most of its goals and that funds should now be shifted to new program that reached into new, uncharted territory.

As these changes are made, Goldin said that NASA shouldn’t continue to be in a position of providing "corporate subsidies". He said that NASA should be looking far ahead and strive for a long term vision - not focus on things in the near term that should more rightfully be funded by Industry. He said "In a budget constrained environment, you have to ask if we've achieved our goals - and whether money would be better spent on revolutionary enhancements."

Goldin expressed a concern for lack of long-term thinking and cited the fact that the U.S. now only has two major jet engine manufacturers, only one company producing long-haul commercial jet liners, and that the U.S. only had a small portion of the general aviation market. The U.S. is at risk of further market erosion unless some strategic thought is put into where the country will be in the decade ahead.

Education

Goldin spoke of a concern he had for the people who would actually do this future research. He lamented the fact that while the number of electrical engineering majors was on the decline, the number of parks and recreation majors was on the rise. Without some thought given to reversing this trend there is going to be a serious skill mix crunch at NASA - and the U.S. economy as a whole - in the years ahead.

Other Cuts

In addition to an overhaul of the aeronautics, programs, other things will be coming to an end. The HPCC (High Performance Computing and Communication ) project will be ended and 4 of NASA's CCDS (Commercial Centers for the Development of Space) will be closed. As part of the fiscal frugality NASA has been forced to adopt in human spaceflight, programs of lesser immediate priority i.e. Transhab and human Mars exploration have been put to a halt. This was done so as to allow more people to focus on NASA's near term Shuttle and ISS problems.

Cost Accountability

When asked about the veracity of NASA's cost estimating, Goldin replied that there would be 15 new hires at NASA to enhance NASA's ability to do cost estimating. Goldin noted that costs often do climb for very valid reasons. He cited the increase of the Shuttle avionics upgrade from an initial estimate of $380 million to a final number around $500 million as an example. He said "we will not underfund, but we will demand performance". In other words, costs need to be validated - not just accepted at face value - and not allowed to grow unchecked.

Space Science Changes

In Space Science Goldin said that one of the constraints that went into formulating the FY 2002 budget was higher than expected costs from SIRTF, SOFIA, and Gravity Probe B, and the need for additional funds to restructure NASA's robotic Mars exploration program. The result of this was that other missions had to be cancelled - Pluto Kuiper Express (PKE) and Solar Probe being among the more notable. With regard to PKE, Goldin said that NASA had looked at what it would take to get PKE to Pluto. He cited the approach NASA used as being "brute force" i.e. the use of chemical rockets and the large mass required, to get a probe from one part of the solar system to another.

While this decision would set back the exploration of the outer solar system, Goldin said that he felt that developing new propulsion technologies with the $310 million that had been saved by cancellation of several missions, might allow probes to get to the outer solar system sooner - and cheaper - than the approach that had been proposed for PKE.

Goldin also noted that the Hubble Space Telescope will be fitted with upgrades that should allow it to function until such time as the Next Generation Space Telescope comes online.

Earth Science

When asked about Triana, Goldin said that NASA had problems fitting the launch of this spacecaft on STS-107 and that OSF Associate Administrator Joe Rothenberg was off looking for a flight. While he could not provide a date Goldin did say that he was committed to flying Triana. Earth Science is also in store for a significant amount of funds to develop the next generation of Earth Observation satellites and that NASA is also on a path toward making a significant increase in the amount of commercial data buys from the sector.

Launch Systems

Space Transportation was one of the main problems that NASA has been directed to focus on. With the cancellation of the X-33 and X-34 programs, and the apparent retreat from revolutionary, Single Stage to Orbit launch vehicles, NASA is now moving to a "Second Generation" launch systems - ones funded by the SLI (Space Launch Initiative) which makes no architectural restrictions.

Goldin said that NASA was not going to drive the potential solutions for the Second Generation launch system, As such, it might be that a wholly new architecture appears - or one that involved a significantly upgraded Space Shuttle system. He noted that a significant portion of SLI research should have direct applicability with the Shuttle Program.

According to Goldin, "5 years out we'll take a look at the commercial market. If there is one of sufficient size we'll give this next technology to it. If there is not a viable market then we ( NASA) will have to make another decision at that point." He repeated that NASA will "not drive this process to a Shuttle solution only."

Space Station

The Space Station has been the prime focus in recent days of NASA's budget problems. Goldin repeated a line he has uttered many times in the past weeks - namely that 'NASA will live within its budget." He said that NASA had been through "tough times " on the ISS program and that it has been an "overwhelming job."

When asked if NASA was giving up on the Hab, Crew Return (CRV), and propulsion modules for the ISS , Goldin said 'no'. He said that NASA was pursuing various options with the international partners on the program for these capabilities. As far as the CRV's precursor, the X-38, Goldin said that there were funds to take that system up to and through orbital testing and that this would be done before NASA makes any commitment on funding the development of a CRV system.

As far as the Hab module was concerned, discussions were underway with the Europeans. With regard to propulsion, Goldin noted that the recent addition of the CMGs on the ISS had reduced the amount of propellant required and that the bulk of the orbit raising to date had been done by the Shuttle. He said that both the Ariane Transfer Vehicle (ATV) being developed by ESA and the H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) being developed by Japan offered the prospect of meeting propulsion needs as well.

Goldin said that he was hopeful that NASA would move ahead with its plan to transfer significant portions of the utilization of U.S. assets on the ISS to a NGO (Non Governmental Organization). He said that he expected an RFP to be issued within 6 months and that a down-selection would be made from the offers received. He said that he hoped that the responses to the NGO RFP would not be from bidders such as real estate developers. "Where's the benefit in that?" he said. Rather, he hoped that there would be consortia developed between academia and the research community so as to bring a value-added apparoch by whomever was chosen to develop and operate the NGO - and ISS utilization.

Space Shuttle

The Space Shuttle is also the focus of new efforts on NASA's part. Goldin said that Phase 1 of transferring certain responsibilities to United Space Alliance (USA) was now complete and that Phase 2 lay ahead. Goldin said that he would like to see the transfer of SSME (Space Shuttle Main Engine) and SRB (Solid Rocket Booster) operations from their current companies (Boeing and Lockheed Martin respectively) to the USA Contract (USA is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing). Goldin said that this was much more desirable than having "fee heaped upon fee and G&A heaped on G&A" which results when the costs are passed back to the government.

With regard to Shuttle upgrades, Goldin said that an oversight committee of the NASA Advisory Council was now looking at each upgrade before the plan was put into effect. He said that this oversight was good. Had NASA gone ahead last year with its plans to implement electric APUs (current Auxiliary Power Units move the Shuttle's control surfaces (flaps) powered by chemical systems) NASA would have been faced with the embarrassment now that this might not be possible in the time frame that had been thought.

Pork

One of the more interesting items to emerge was the fact that Bush Administration has told NASA that 'earmarks' will not be funded. One problem that has vexed NASA for years has been earmarked projects. Such projects are added by members of Congress to NASA's annual appropriation and usually reflect projects in the member's home district or state. While some of these projects do have intrinsic merit, many often don’t fit in with NASA's plans - or are of tangential benefit - at best (museum exhibits, 'pilot' demonstration projects etc.,). Rep. Jerry Lewis, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, has seen to it that his district gets its share of NASA money for years for a project NASA never asked for. Such projects are often labeled en masse as being Congressional "pork" (as in 'feeding at the public trough').

Often times, members of Congress will boast of having given NASA "more money than it asked for" in reply to those who blame Congress for NASA's money problems. What is rarely admitted (certainly not in public) by any member of Congress is that the aggregate value of these earmarks often exceeds the money added to he budget . This leaves NASA to adjust the programs it is supposed to be doing so as to accommodate those hoisted upon it by Congress as the price that goes with getting its budget passed.

One example of this effect can be seen in a memo circulated by the Acting administrator of the Office of Biological and Physical research wherein a 5% across the board cut was being suggested as an explicit reaction to having to fund Congressionally mandated projects put into NASA's FY 2001 budget.

The Bush Administration apparently sees such projects as disruptive to the overall budget process -and to the operation of the agency. Causing things of value to be displaced. Goldin said that NASA will honor such programs in the FY 2001 budget but not thereafter. It will be interesting to see if members of Congress are able to restrain themselves from the time-honored practice of taking care of the folks back home.

Summary

Overall, the message from Goldin was to prepare for yet another round of belt tightening, with everyone put on notice that they should not rest on their assumptions as to what is sacrosanct. While it is rather unlikely that a field center will be closed - or that such an idea will be voiced - it is within the realm of possibility that a number of field centers may see some of their more cherished - and reliable programs - cut back, eliminated, or consolidated at another center.

In closing, Goldin said something rather familiar to those who track his words "my job is not to provide happiness. My job is to provide a future-looking space program."

Unlike previous years, Dan Goldin may not have to put action behind his rhetoric. The only major question that now seems to be left unresolved is when the Bush Administration will pick the person to implement these changes. While it is more or less a foregone conclusion that that person will not be Dan Goldin, everyone should note that Mr. Goldin is still the Administrator of NASA - and this White House is allowing him, as Administrator, more flexibility in running his agency than he was ever allowed under the Clinton Administration.

Background Information

  • 9 April 2001: National Aeronautics and Space Administration FY 2002 - Congressional Budget Home Page

  • Summary of NASA's FY 2002 Budget Request (Acrobat)
  • FY 2002 Biological and Physical Research Enterprise White Paper
  • FY 2002 Earth Science Enterprise White Paper
  • FY 2002 Spaceflight Enterprise White Paper
  • FY 2002 Space Science Enterprise White Paper
  • FY 2002 Aerospace Technology Enterprise White Paper

  • 9 April 2001: Remarks by Daniel S. Goldin: NASA FY 2002 Budget Briefing

  • Video shown at NASA Budget press conference (includes advanced morphing aerospace vehicle) [Real Media] [Large version - MPEG 29.9 MB] [Small version -MPEG 6.2 MB]

  • 9 April 2001: Details of NASA's FY 2002 Budget, OMB/White House
  • 6 April 2001: Congress, NASA, and the International Space Station: A New Civility?, SpaceRef
  • 16 March 2001: email regarding " NASA microgravity research budget" sent to a large number of recipients in the NASA microgravity science community by Vedha Nayagam, National Center for Microgravity Research, NASA GRC
  • 23 February 2001: Letter from (former) JSC Center Director George Abbey to Senior Staff: Actions Required to Address ISS Budget Challenges
  • 28 February 2001: Memo NASA Staff: FY 2002 Budget Blueprint Overview by NASA Associate Administrator for Space Flight Joe Rothenberg, NASA HQ
  • 28 February 2001: Highlights of 2002 NASA Funding: A Blueprint for New Beginnings -- A Responsible Budget for America's Priorities, White House
  • 21 February 2001: Memo from KSC Center Director: Solving International Space Station Resource Problem
  • 8 January 2001: Letter from K.L. Olsen, Ph.D. Acting Administrator, NASA Office of Biological and Physical Research (OBPR) to OBPR Principal Investigators


    Please follow SpaceRef on Twitter and Like us on Facebook.