Congress, NASA

Tightening the budget screws

In their “Pledge to America” last fall, the House GOP leadership proposed cutting most discretionary spending to FY 2008 levels. That’s not enough, though, for some Republicans. On Thursday the Republican Study Committee announced its Spending Reduction Act, intended to cut federal spending by $2.5 trillion through 2021. The biggest part of that spending cut would be by limiting discretionary spending from 2012 through 2021 at FY 2006 levels (FY 2011 funding would be cut to 2008 levels). That would further reduce NASA’s budget, to about $16.5 billion a year. By comparison, the administration’s FY2011 budget proposal for NASA was $19 billion, gradually increasing to nearly $21 billion by FY2015—about $4.5 billion more than what the agency would get under the RSC’s proposal in that year.

24 comments to Tightening the budget screws

  • Robert G. Oler

    Cutting discretionary spending wont fix the budget, but its a place to start…at some point military spending has to come down as well..surely we can be “safe” on 1/2 trillion dollars a year.

    16 billion and change should do a lot IF programs can be tightly managed and run with very good but streamlined staffs. For instance…they should be able to operate ISS with a US ground crew of less then 30. A major oil company in Houston operates a string of pipelines that run from near ARuba all the way north to Chicago…and span the breadth of the continent…with 10 people…Look at the steaming watch of a US Nuclear attack submarine…and you sort of get the upper limit for what a US space station should take.

    So if one can get the “US control center(s)” down to 1 and then get the shift down to a total of 30 people per shift…well that is something affordable.

    What you cannot have are porkers like Webb…Webb should have been stopped when the dollars exceeded twice the initial estimate. Same with the nuclear powered Mars rover.

    There is a great line from Cap the knife when he was SecDef…people were complaining about how hard it was to bring on line the new generation of weapons and his reply was “if you cant manage them I can find people who can”.

    It can be done…NASA just needs to ditch people like Hanley and others who cannot manage their way to a bordello.

    Robert G. Oler

  • amightywind

    A reduced budget is not a negative for NASA. It is a chance to ‘clean out the stalls’ and reform.

  • GeeSpace

    I generally agree with Robert Oler in that in order to reduce the federal deficit and debt denfense and homeland security expenditures need to be cut or modified in additional to modifying increases in Society Security and Medicare, Even if the Republican Study Committee’s recommendation are accepted in total (which is highly unlikely), the 2.5 trillion is only part pf the 9 trillion increase in deficit over the next 10 years. And does nothing to reduce the $14 trillion debt.

    amightywind wrote @ A reduced budget is not a negative for NASA. It is a chance to ‘clean out the stalls’ and reform.

    Amightywind, have you ever heard of the concept of Civil Service. In big organizations generally speaking the non-creative people have the power to hire or fire. And a lot of those folks will not fire themselves or people like them. But then, there is always hope. Like, the United States will have an aggressive human beyond the Earth space program

  • Aremis Asling

    “A reduced budget is not a negative for NASA. It is a chance to ‘clean out the stalls’ and reform.”

    There may be some room for improvement, but just like in all the other discretionary spending categories, there’s nowhere near enough to make anything more than a symbolic difference. And I doubt there’s 2.5 billion in there to cut, even if we kill every single one of of the NASA projects Republicans object to.

    Discretionary spending is the smaller of the pieces of the budgetary pie. And when the head of the Joint Chiefs says we can hack hundreds of billions out of defense, I believe him. When even democrats say there are ways to streamline Medicare without stripping it bare or underpaying docs, I believe them. Why pick on the little guys? Why beat up on NASA? Perhaps they should have some cuts, but I don’t think they should be the first place to look.

  • James T

    Isn’t it a little naive to be suggesting budget levels that span 10 years? Every two years sees a change up in the balance of power. The only way such a commitment could stick is if the Republicans get total power (they don’t have it yet) and keep it for the duration. The last time the Republican party got control of capital hill and either kept it or retained enough to block the opposition for at least 10 years was in the 1920s.

    In order for this plan to come to fruition they will have to take the presidency AND both legislative bodies in 2012. Then they’ll have to retain the control or be able to block the opposition for four more elections. I assure you, moderates will not tolerate such harsh reductions for so long and politicians reach their quota of BS too quickly these days. There’s an old saying, “you never miss the water till the well runs dry.” Deficit reducing rhetoric is all the rage now… but watch what happens when you start taking away everything for the middle class while the rich get more tax cuts and unpopular wars escalate.

    As far as NASA goes, go ahead and cut the budget down to $16.5 billion, as long as what you’re cutting is SLS and Orion. I’d rather those programs be cut and see NASA keep the budget, but if cuts must be then let them be in a practical fashion.

    And by the way… when they say they’re cutting down to those levels… are they adjusting for inflation as well?

  • amightywind

    Amightywind, have you ever heard of the concept of Civil Service.

    It is difficult to relate coming from the rough and tumble world of technology development. Business is such that malinvestments in hiring must be addressed quickly if a company is to survive. The recession and layoffs must now similarly visit the government bureaucracy.

  • Sadly I get the feeling that this isn’t anything more than smoke and mirrors. Or perhaps a desire to look like they are doing something early in taking office. The debt problem we face is going to take a little more time to figure out. So I’ll give them the “let’s do something now” point but they may be spending their political capital too early.

  • Jon Browning

    Cutting fiscal spending in a recession is like peeing into the wind. It flies in the face of Econ 101. (Cutting long-term structural deficits for entitlement/military spending is an altogether different issue, which Republicans seem unable to differentiate.) So Republicans are, IMO, being destructive in their political opportunism. I do take the gentleman’s point about taking an opportunity to use budget cuts to weed out some organizational/programmatic dead wood, but a more likely scenario is that the most politically savvy/connected in an organization – in this case, NASA – will save their programs and their people while other, perhaps more valuable but less politically connected, programs will be those that get cut. This is how it works in any organization, public or private.

    So suffice to say that it will be impossible to get more with less at NASA.

  • vulture4

    So how was this Republican Congress going to fund George Bush’s Constellation program, which was already over budget, when they want to cut the NASA budget to pay for tax cuts? Voodoo economics?

  • James T


    Well one of the things you’ve got to realize is that “the republicans” aren’t really the problem here. It’s to space pork hungry congressional districts which happen to be mostly republican that or being hypocritical. The fate of NASA’s budget and direction depend on if the party as a whole sticks to the campaign slogans or if they side with their few buddies and continue to deliver the pork. I really hate to say it but a true tea party takeover might have been better for sustainable space… I really really hate to say that.

  • common sense

    @ Jon Browning wrote @ January 21st, 2011 at 8:20 pm

    Well the Republicans have for at least the past 10 years run on a platform made of fears and fears alone. They cannot and will not cut any money that goes to anything that smells like national security. And that is a broad statement since for those who still live in the 50s and 60s think NASA is about national security.

    To perform what you are suggesting be it for defense or entitlements might require a nice revolution so to speak. It will not happen, not this time, not ever. We may just end up being a “former” superpower. Let me remind you that our great Congress include people who think that since some people in the world don’t want to cut their emissions of pollutants/green-house-gases then we should not do it either nor promote it. Being that stupid is making China a leader in that area of so called green technology. At the same time we argue about landing on the Moon and what China might do there if they are first. See people actually live in alternate reality(ies). China will become leader in green technology(ies) – not human space flight – and after giving away our national treasure to oil producing countries we will give even more to China than we are already giving them on green technology(ies).


  • common sense wrote:

    At the same time we argue about landing on the Moon and what China might do there if they are first.

    The United States was first, in 1969. China, if they ever get there, will be second.

  • common sense

    @ Stephen C. Smith wrote @ January 22nd, 2011 at 7:29 pm

    “The United States was first, in 1969. China, if they ever get there, will be second.”

    Of course, I am just trying to expose the rhetorical flaws of the “reasoning” of those who fear China on the Moon… Anyway it does not always work as intended I suppose.

    Oh well…

  • Tim

    Stephen C. Smith wrote “The United States was first, in 1969. China, if they ever get there, will be second.”

    …and for too many people that’s all the moon is/was, a race to be won.

  • cut the pork to trim the fat? Who would have thought an analogy would actually be literal? I guess it happens now and then.

  • VirgilSamms

    How about that 350 billion + F-35 fighter?
    We really need that to fight….who?

    I am more worried about getting hit by a comet. NASA should get into the nuclear weapons business if they want a bigger budget. Obama wants to reduce the arsenal; put them out there on a spacecraft at a libration point to intercept and blast impact threats.

    A much better way to spend 300 billion than another worthless weapons system.

  • That NASA Engineer@KSC

    In Oler’s comment about “6 billion and change should do a lot IF programs can be tightly managed and run with very good but streamlined staffs” – Is this not a way of saying that money is not the strategic issue inside NASA today? Rather, what’s of critical importance are the ways of doing business inside industry and NASA and the product that those designed-in-ways-of-doing-business create? Throwing in a number, 90% of NASA’s budget is contractors, and only 10% are civil servant and related costs.

    Still, more observations that should be part of this discussion come to mind.

    For one, deficit reduction has no well established number outside of context within a countries broader economics. The government of Japan, for example, already surpassed the amount of debt the US has when measured as a percent of Gross National Product. Current projections that cut the accumulated US “debt” (with cutting “yearly deficits” leading to the former), such as White House / OMB projections, get the value of US debt down to 65% by 2020 (external debt). Japan already surpassed 100%. So it’s not inherently obvious that bells and whistles go off at some value and cause action, actions like cutting spending, raising taxes, revamping systems, etc. It’s more complicated than that.

    On a related note, people want services. A “great recession” aside, the demand for services that only the government can provide does not diminish when revenue slacks off due to hard times. This is what makes those analogies very weak – the ones about how if business is having a difficult time, that therefore the government must tighten its belt. When a business has a hard time the revenue drops because a buyer is saying they will do without the product. The buyer does not expect the product for free. Now if they had paid for it earlier in installments, or throughout their lifetime, that would be different. The analogy for the government (local, state, federal, etc) does not apply, as the desire, the demand, is there for the service. Ask if during hard times a person would want to save money by not sending their children to school, or by opting-out of police or firemen responding to a call? In return, they would keep their “property taxes” for the year. That’s not how it works. A large part of this local tax situation applies to the broader state and federal analogies. A significant part of the disconnect today in American politics is occurring between those who are glad to get a service, for a certain price (such as from the government when they are the only ones who can provide the service), and the more individualized person who feels they can go without (or who wants the service, just not the bill, or the broader responsibilities and constraints in a society, a real disconnect).

    There is a school of thought that as societies get more affluent certain citizenry want things that only the government can provide, all other needs being met by the private sector. Unemployment insurance (a state/federal program) is one example. In exchange for a fee (through employers) that comes out of the business, and which likely reduces profits/wages (just as individual payments would), a person insures themselves for an undesirable event (being let go). So long as managed correctly there is no reason such an insurance concept is not infinitely sustainable, putting aside macro-economic disasters the long-wave of which only a public entity can ride out back into the black.

    So going forward, I think it’s useful to ask what people will still want to buy (or create debt over) as well as how long such a decision is internal vs. a creature of events (economic, political, etc)? And to think in collective terms, as the vote in a democracy will entail some naturally being upset with the decisions of “society” as a democratic, majority/judicial process driven entity in a complex global web of economic factors.

    As the baby boom and this country ages, more and more pressure will apply to Medicare, health insurance companies, doctors, hospitals, etc to control costs, or simply to accept declines in revenue on a per capita patient basis – for better outcomes. This is not a bad thing. There is no movement afoot in Canada or the UK to drop a national-type of health-care system. The wealth effect there, a bit less of it, and especially attitudes, simply lead to the purchase of a service being managed more-or-less fine, that only the government can provide efficiently – for all. Recent polling suggests this leaning to place a societies wealth into health care, to pay insurance fees or taxes (or to do so collectively, so it’s always there, healthy or not) will persist more easily than a desire for defense spending. Last weeks New York Times carried an interesting poll on these attitudes. Social security on the other hand has rather easy fixes ahead, like expansions in the tax base limit above income of $100K a year, or some means testing, etc. Factors affecting only very small numbers of the beneficiaries.

    So there in national health (or in just Medicare at the Federal level), defense and social security you have really attacked the budget growth to get things back in balance as regards deficits and accumulated debt. Discretionary spending merely being more or less frozen for many years can achieve the “fit” into this broader debt management paradigm.

    Of these 4 areas then, the most difficult to cut may be defense – I hate to say. Fear is such an easy justification, not requiring a model, complex economics discussions, or numbers or an understanding of complex programs and such. NASA, in a sense, may benefit by association from this resistance to DoD cuts. Yet I suspect that may only be temporary, as the final factor in all this is the macro-economic factors that can render all this moot if world leaders don’t think ahead, and lead together. China, the US, Europe, Japan, the Arab world – all have to come to grips with an economic balance that to be sustainable, likely means changing ways of life. Oh, and that will be upsetting…to everyone. We have grown so used to the disconnects…800 military bases worldwide, spending on defense as much as the next 20 countries combined (and most of those are our friends), middle-class jobs with high school education levels, spending not saving, consuming as if resources were infinite, a youthful demographic, a European demographic, and so on. All this will change…and is changing. And yet, there’s so much to look forward to in all this change. None of it is inherently bad. And I hope NASA leads the way as the positive in the possibilities.

    Or as the Chinese saying went “may you live in interesting times”…

  • common sense

    @ That NASA Engineer@KSC wrote @ January 24th, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    A very good post indeed. I am glad to see that some of us can still think in those times of troubles. The politics of fear used for defense spending unfortunately is being expanded to the other sector of our lives for health care (death panels), NASA (China), etc. I believe this all what is left to the regular media to come up with an audience. The pundit soundbyte that in turn is used by our political class. It probably explains the emergence of the media on the Internet but it becomes more difficult to sort the “good” media. Interestingly enough I think the Internet has allowed to expose what the mainstream media agenda(s) is(are). In any case a good post.

    I would like to add that as a pragmatist I think there is no one solution. For example, I believe today’s solution to health care in this country uses a single payer run by the government because of the failures of the private sector. On the other hand I believe that today NASA would be better served by the private industry. I also believe that there MUST NOT be any privatization of our military troops. Combat should not be handled by private outfits. It is our government responsibility no matter the cost, local, state and federal.

    But with a little common sense we could be put on a new trajectory for the US to stay the world leaders on anything. The problem is that the politics of fears are hampering us, e.g. DHS.

  • VirgilSamms

    “I believe that today NASA would be better served by the private industry.”

    Unfortunately, the requirements for flying in deep space, namely HLV’s and nuclear energy, are beyond the ability of private companies like SpaceX, etc.

    “Better served” means captivity in LEO for decades to come. I believe the planetary defense mission can bring DOD funding for deep space flight and re-energize HSF. But the key, as congress has doubtless been advised behind the scenes, is a HLV. And sidemount is the only good candidate at this point. Making Sidemount cargo only would be the best path to continue with commercial crew and get the U.S. into deep space.

  • common sense

    @ VirgilSamms wrote @ January 24th, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    You’re mixing up every thing. Make your life easier and think LEO and BEO. LEO is better served by the private industry. BEO? No one really knows. There is no demonstrated need for an HLV for BEO. As for nukes? For now you can dream on as it is not anywhere close to happen.

    Again: It is Commercials AND NASA, not OR! Is it that difficult to understand?

  • VirgilSamms

    “There is no demonstrated need for an HLV for BEO.”
    I think it was demonstrated pretty well on December 21, 1968.

    I am mixing nothing up; I suspect you are the one mixed up. LEO is a dead end- there is nothing there but going around in circles. The interesting places and resources are all BEO. We can accomplish nothing by staying in LEO. Is that difficult to understand?

  • Dennis Berube

    I was reading the other day, projections that within the next few years the worlds population will reach 9 billion people. How can that be sustained?One of two things will happen. Either a great war wll happen as our planets resources dwindle, or we MUST move off planet and into space. No exceptions. Our efforts at birth control just do not work. I read also that within the next couple of years gas prices will reach a steady five dollars a galllon. What will that do forthe economy? Resources await us out there, if we but go and get them. We can sustain human population growth if we have these resources at our disposal. Or wouldl you rather have a great war?

  • James T

    The population will NOT reach 9 billion in a few years, it will reach 7 billion in a few years. 9 billion is the projected population for 2050. The fact that you got that so blatantly wrong makes me doubt this thing about gas prices that you “read” has any merit. The reason gas prices go up is not just because of a decreasing supply, but also because of an increasing demand. But hybrid/electric cars are becoming more practical and affordable so those demands are due to decrease and then the supply wont be running out as fast.

  • common sense

    And even if the world was to reach 9 billion by 2050 or even 20 billion what are we supposed to do? Launch gigantic ships into space? To do what to go where? The Moon? Any idea what the life would be for the people “out there”? We don’t even have the technology to do any of that and probably not in the upcoming decades. We’ll have to find other ways to try and contain the demographics and necessary resources. In your scenario a war is more likely than space ships leaving Earth…

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