CBO Study: A Budgetary Analysis of NASA's New Vision for Space Exploration

Status Report From: Congressional Budget Office
Posted: Monday, September 6, 2004

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September 2004


President Bush's new vision for human and robotic exploration of the solar system, which he first articulated in January of this year, has shifted the main focus of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to, initially, returning people to the moon and, later, sending human missions to Mars and beyond. Following the President's announcement, NASA released its budget request for fiscal year 2005 and its budget projection, which forecasts budgetary requirements through 2020. Relative to previous plans, that request and projection would significantly reorient the agency's programs to achieve the goals of the space exploration vision.

This Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study assesses the implications that those plans might have for the content and schedule of NASA's future activities as well as the funding that might be needed to execute them. CBO developed estimates of how the costs to carry out NASA's plans for space exploration might differ from its current budget projection and then assessed potential budgetary or programmatic options that might be available to address such cost differences. In addition, CBO examined options for the continued operation of the space shuttle and the United States' participation in the International Space Station (ISS), two programs that would be significantly affected by NASA's proposed program changes.

NASA's Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2005

To help describe its plans for implementing the President's vision for the nation's space exploration program, NASA has projected its anticipated funding needs through 2020—11 years longer than the five-year projection that usually accompanies its budget requests (see Summary Box 1). CBO's analysis is based largely on that projection, which included the following elements:

  • Completing construction of the International Space Station and retiring the space shuttle by 2010;
  • Developing a new crew exploration vehicle (CEV) for human missions into space, with initial test flights carried out by 2008 and a first crewed mission no later than 2014;
  • Relying on international partners for access to the ISS during the period between the shuttle's retirement and the start of CEV operations;
  • Resuming robotic missions to the moon starting around 2008 and continuing robotic missions to Mars; and
  • B Returning U.S. astronauts to the moon sometime during the 2015-2020 period. (NASA's projected budget incorporates the assumption that a first crewed lunar landing will occur in 2020 but does not include explicit plans or schedules for establishing a lunar base or for sending astronauts to Mars. However, the agency proposes to allocate $2.2 billion during the 2018-2020 period to prepare for human missions beyond the first human lunar return landing.)

In realigning its activities to achieve those objectives, NASA has made significant changes relative to its budget request for 2004 and the associated five-year projection. For example, under the new plan, four existing programs will each experience cuts of more than $1 billion between 2005 and 2009 (see Summary Table 1). Six programs will receive additional funding of at least $1 billion; five of them are closely related to the new exploration initiative. The change for the sixth—an increase of $1.2 billion for the ISS—is intended to adjust NASA's activities to reflect the reorientation of U.S. science research on the space

NASA expects to achieve the new objectives established for the exploration mission within overall budget levels through 2020 that are little changed (in inflationadjusted, or real, terms) from those of today (see Summary Figure 1). In NASA's five-year projection, for 2005 through 2009, funding that is directly related to supporting those new objectives totals over $14 billion, the majority of which would come from reallocating $11 billion of the total $84 billion that NASA has projected for its budget over that period. The other $3 billion would consist of funding for existing programs whose activities support NASA's new plan plus $1.24 billion in new funding requested for the period. In real terms, those new funds would represent an increase of 1.5 percent in NASA's planned budget relative to the 2004 plan.

Beyond its five-year plan, NASA's projection through 2020 incorporated the assumption that the growth of overall funding would be limited to inflation of about 2 percent per year. Over the 2010-2020 period, the significant rise projected in annual funding for exploration missions— from about $4 billion in 2010 to over $9 billion in 2020—would be made possible primarily by retiring the space shuttle in 2010 and ending ISS activities in 2017. (Under the 2004 plan, the shuttle was expected to continue operating at least through 2015 and the ISS, at least through 2017.)

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