Saturday, February 05, 2011

Didn't We Just Leave This Party?

Okay, so it's February again, and that means it's time for the President to submit his budget for the coming fiscal year. Regular readers might recall that last year's budget was a bit traumatic for those of us in NASA's human spaceflight community, as the administration announced the cancellation of the Constellation Program. The ramifications of that decision have taken more than a year to unfold, but here in Huntsville that's translated into 700 people being laid off. Your Humble Narrator, while still employed, is no longer working Constellation/Ares, but is instead supporting Marshall Space Flight Center in whatever writing capacity he is needed: reports, speeches, white papers, whatever, dude. I'm there. Mind you, the silliness for fiscal year (FY) 2011 isn't over yet because the previous Congress and the current Congress have yet to pass a budget beyond March 4.

And for a refresher, here's where the budget stands now: the previous Congress passed a series of continuing resolutions (CRs) to keep not just NASA but the entire government operating, but at 2010 budget levels. NASA's 2010 budget also included specific wording that said it could not shut down the Constellation Program. A CR means NASA must continue to operate under that law, but it did get some guidance that it could start planning work on the Senate version of the Administration's future plans (commercial crew/cargo to the International Space Station, building a new heavy-lift launch vehicle). Constellation exists, then, but rather in zombie mode, since we know it's to be cancelled, but the budgetary laws forbid NASA from doing so outright.

In the meantime, Congress did pass a new Authorization Law for NASA, which gives the agency its new direction. An Authorization Law says, "This is what we want you to do." An Appropriations Law signs the check and says, "Here's the money, go do it." All the agency has is an Authorization, not an Appropriation. (For a snarkier version of this story, see this YouTube video.) The current appropriation for FY11, again, is a CR based on the 2010 budget and Authorization, and it is valid through March 4. If one operates under the theory that misery loves company, NASA employees can take some small comfort that they are not alone--the entire U.S. government is operating under these CR rules.

This year promises to be challenging as well because we now have a new Congress which, rightly, is trying to rein in spending. However, some of them are more eager than others, and NASA has always made a big, juicy target. This is what my more savvy political-observer friends call the "posturing" phase of the budget. One member of Congress is proposing a 25 percent cut of NASA's budget. The President will announce his budget requests February 14. What will FY12 look like? Well, given that Congress hasn't been able to pass a budget for the remainder of FY11, which ends September 30, it's almost impossible to predict.

The best bet is that NASA and the rest of the government will receive a CR for the rest of FY11. FY12 will most likely be tight, as Republicans impose serious budget cuts...and really, I voted for 'em, so I can't complain. If the government takes in $2 TRILLION in taxes and continues to spend $3 TRILLION, something's seriously awry. My mother has a phrase for that sort of behavior, and it's called "Living beyond your means." Individuals go bankrupt doing that if they keep it up long enough. But then comes the pragmatic planner in me, who asks, "If you're going to cut, why not cut larger parts of the budget where there is obvious waste going on--Defense, Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security, and the like?" Those budgets are in the hundreds of billions while NASA's is a paltry $19 billion, and unlike most parts of the government, actually produces high-technology hardware and universe-spanning knowledge. However, I am not an elected official. I don't see things as they do. They see NASA and consider it ALL pork, even the stuff and people that actually work (like me, I add humbly). They see bright, shiny objects flying into space before a crowd of thousands at Cape Canaveral and figure that it MUST be expensive and wasteful. 

Anyhow, in reality, the 25 percent cut probably won't happen, but NASA could get kicked back to 2010 or 2008 levels (around $17 billion). That's not exactly huge in the cosmic scheme of things, but it's not small change, either: that'd be a 10 percent cut, and it would mean cutting back missions: Shuttle, ISS, science, you name it. That translates not just into hardware not built, but jobs cut. What does that mean? This article from the UK crystallizes the effects on the area around Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Yet is NASA nothing more than a jobs program for engineers? I think if you ask the average American how they feel about the Space Shuttle or our nation's other exploits in space, you'd get a different answer.

I honestly don't know what direction space activities will take from here. I know what the plans are, but that doesn't mean the plans will come out as intended. Will the private sector truly be able to launch astronauts to ISS on the timeline NASA wants? I hope so. But what will become of NASA's fabled history of sending human beings into space for exploration? Will we leave the Moon to China, Russia, and India because our elected officials aren't able to pass a budget for more than a few months at a time? You can't run a railroad that way, much less an ambitious space program. If you are upset that your nation isn't doing great things in space, don't blame NASA--write your congressman/woman. As the saying goes, "No bucks, no Buck Rogers." And in a time of general pessimism, we need Buck Rogers more than ever.

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