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NASA budget: asteroid mission efforts, funding commercial crew, and restructuring education

At first glance, the administration’s fiscal year 2014 budget proposal doesn’t look that different from the agency’s 2013 proposal: both request nearly the same amount of money ($17.715 billion in FY14 versus $17.711B in FY13) with only modest variations amount the key accounts. (OF course, NASA ended up with considerably less than it requested: about $16.6 billion overall once the final accounting for sequestration and rescission is taken into account.) Here’s the budget at a glance:

Account FY14 request ($M)
Science $5,017.8
Space Technology $742.6
Aeronautics $565.7
Exploration $3,915.5
Space Operations $3,882.9
Education $94.2
Cross Agency Support $2,850.3
Construction $609.4
Inspector General $37.0
TOTAL $17,715.4

See also NASA administrator Bolden’s statement as well as other budget documents.

The highest profile initiative is beginning work on a mission to retrieve a small asteroid and return it to cislunar space, where it will be visited by astronauts on an SLS/Orion mission, possibly the already scheduled EM-2 mission in 2021. The overall asteroid mission initiative gets $105 million in the budget request, although only $78 million would be directly related the mission itself: $38 million in space technology to work the solar electric propulsion system the robotic retrieval spacecraft would use, and $40 million in advanced research and development in exploration to encounter asteroids, including dealing with “uncooperative targets”. In addition, there is $7 million in space technology to study asteroid impact mitigation strategies, and $20 million in science to improve asteroid searches.

The program is spread out over three directorates, rather than consolidated into one, because the program is still in its earliest stages. “We decided to preferentially invest in the kinds of technologies we needed anyway,” a senior NASA official, speaking on background, said prior to the budget’s public rollout. Solar electric propulsion, dealing with uncooperative targets, and asteroid searches were individually key programs, the official explained, that could be used for other applications regardless of how the asteroid retrieval mission pans out. The official added NASA hopes to get the overall cost of the mission below the $2.6-billion estimate in the Keck Institute for Space Studies report last year, but declined to say by how much, noting that NASA has not yet performed a mission concept review, planned for this summer.

The budget also includes “full funding” for both the SLS and Orion programs, as well as for Commercial Crew, where NASA is seeking $821 million. In the last two budgets, NASA has sought over $800 million for the program but received only a fraction of that: $406 million in FY12 and under $490 million (post-rescission and -sequestration) in FY13. The NASA official emphasized that this full funding was needed in FY14 in order to keep the program on track for beginning flights in 2017. “You can’t hold 2017 at $525 [million]” in 2014 and beyond, the official said, referring to the amount Congress provided for the program in FY13 before rescission and sequestration.

One other change in the FY14 budget is a revamp of the agency’s education program. As part of a broader administration initiative in STEM education, NASA’s education efforts are being consolidated with about a dozen other agencies, with the Department of Education, NSF, and the Smithsonian taking lead roles. That results in a lower topline for the program—$94 million versus a pre-sequester $125 million for FY13—but the official said there would still be a strong emphasis on education programs at NASA, and expected other agencies to make use of NASA capabilities. “They’re not only going to want to partner with us, they’re going to need to,” the official said. NASA believes it could end up with a more effective program in the long run by taking advantage of the broader reach of those other agencies under this initiative.

44 comments to NASA budget: asteroid mission efforts, funding commercial crew, and restructuring education

  • Coastal Ron

    It is interesting to note that the Whitehouse document that summarizes NASA’s budget proposal lists the Commercial Crew program first, technology development second, and then the SLS & MPCV.

    I think the Administration’s approach to the asteroid mission is pretty interesting. Essentially they are using it to justify the original technology development that they had proposed in their FY11 budget, but that was eliminated by Congress to make room for the SLS and MPCV.

    And that makes sense, since the SLS is just a dumb rocket with nothing to fly except for the MPCV, and the MPCV can’t do anything out in space unless it has other space hardware to help it out. This is the Administration telling Congress that if they want to fly missions with the SLS, then they have to be prepared to fund the technology development that is required to do such missions.

    This will be the first test of whether the SLS exists because Congress wants to fund real space missions, or if the SLS just exists for producing jobs in the right political districts.

    • Dark Blue Nine

      “Essentially they are using it to justify the original technology development that they had proposed in their FY11 budget, but that was eliminated by Congress to make room for the SLS and MPCV.”

      Not really. There are only two fundamentally new technologies in the robotic NEO retrieval mission: the grappling mechanism and the high-power solar-electric propulsion system. And only the latter was part of the FY11 budget request. The robotic NEO retrieval mission doesn’t address the other deep human space exploration technology needs from the FY11 budget request, including: cryogenic propellant management, inflatable mission modules, closed life support loops, aerocapture, lightweight EDL, EVA systems, rad shielding, and ISRU. Even the high-power solar-electric propulsion system is only good for cargo tugs in split sprint architectures. It’s off by orders of magnitude from the power levels you need if you go the electric propulsion route for deep space crew transport. This is why the robotic NEO retrieval mission is such a poor investment for advancing human space exploration. Demonstrating a solar-electric tug should cost low hundreds of millions of dollars at most, not $2.6+ billion, which would fund most of the technologies from the FY11 list above.

      On the high-power solar-electric propulsion system, it was highlighted as a priority in the decadal survey for NASA’s Space Technology Program. Yet in the 3-4 years of that program’s existence, they have never invested in a high-power solar-electric propulsion system. Instead, they’ve poured tends of millions of dollars into other propulsion technologies like solar sails and green propellants, none of which show up as priorities in the decadal survey. A key question going forward is whether the leadership of NASA’s Space Technology Program (now Mission Directorate, I guess) can execute. If they don’t have enough focus to follow a simple list of technology priorities from their own NRC survey, it’s doubtful they have the fortitude to follow through on the development of this system.

      Something else that Congress should think through (and the Administration should have thought through) is whether NASA should be developing the grappling mechanism and associated avionics. The ability to rendezvous, grapple, and take control of an uncooperative object in space has deep implications for military space operations. It may not be a technology that should be developed in an open, civil forum, especially with foreign partners.

    • amightywind

      We can only hope. As this administration fades let us hope that we can redirect NASA to this goal, again.

    • Coastal Ron

      It’s interesting that Rep. Rob Bishop conflates two things – access to space, and going to the Moon. He states in part:

      It’s going to be next to impossible to maintain our preeminence in the exploration of space if we are having to hitch rides from other countries.

      Of course we don’t hitch rides to space from other countries for space exploration, but we do hitch rides to our National Laboratory in LEO that is supporting our ability to do future space exploration. If Rep. Rob Bishop wants to fix that, then all he has to do is ensure that Commercial Crew is fully funded, and as a bonus, the U.S. gets a new revenue-generating industry that will ensure U.S. human transportation dominance for years to come.

      But I would imagine that Rep. Rob Bishop thinks that going to the Moon automatically means we magically create all the things we need for space exploration, even though he is part of the Congress that zero’d out the budget for space technology the President proposed back in the FY11 budget, and is again proposing in his FY14 one.

      We’re back to the disagreement over whether it’s better to pick a destination, and then build technologies to support that destination (i.e. Apollo and Constellation). Or, build technologies & infrastructure that can be used for many destinations, and then pick which destination we want to do next.

      It will be interesting to see if they get any attention at all with their letter.

    • Fred Willett

      Great in theoiry. But without a doubling of NASA’s budget it ain’t going to happen.
      Unless, of course, their proposal includes an allocation of pixie dust.

    • adastramike

      As a Moon-first proponent (to return humans to visit unexplored regions of the Moon such as the poles and establish a scientific base), this is welcome news. If this did gain traction, based on the reported lack of consensus for the human asteroid mission within NASA and the international space community, would Obama care enough to veto it? If so, the more interesting question is whether Congress cares enough to override the veto.

      To some, returning to the Moon in the next 15 years may seem like a pipe dream, but what NASA needs is a near-term goal (the Moon) that will continue the HSF journey that ended in 1972. NASA also needs a strategy to enable human expansion into the Solar System. And in my view the Moon is the right place to utilize first. Colonies are far off and possible for commercial ventures several decades from now, but crewed surface bases are more viable.

      • Coastal Ron

        adastramike said:

        As a Moon-first proponent (to return humans to visit unexplored regions of the Moon such as the poles and establish a scientific base), this is welcome news.

        You do realize that there are parts of Earth that have never been visited or explored, right? So not having visited some parts of the Moon are no big deal – they will keep. In fact they provide plenty of potential revenue opportunities for space entrepreneurs, and those entrepreneurs will actually provide tax money to us instead of taking it away like NASA does. Let’s be good capitalists here.

        Besides, the challenge with NASA is that it doesn’t get enough money from Congress to do much, and certainly not enough to support grand plans on the Moon.

        So given NASA’s inability to do everything, it needs to be focused on just those things that haven’t been done, and we’re already done the Moon. What we haven’t done is learned how to venture out beyond the Moon, in force, and with impunity. We’ll need to be able to do that if we’re going to go on to what everyone agrees is the ultimate goal, Mars.

        Let’s not get sidetracked here.

      • The so-called REAL Space Act says zero about how to pay for it.

        Typical Congressional porkery.

        Nothing to see here.

        Moving on …

    • Robert G. Oler

      Goofy waste of time…the only value in it is that it kept the people mentioned from introducing another anti abortion or ACA or something bill. DEAD ON ARRIVAL RGO

    • Matt

      Yes! Yes! Yes! Thanks, Anne, for posting that. This should be a reminder to the Administration-and a very pointed one-that Congress is not a rubber stamp, and was never meant to be one. All I can say is, Bring on the hearings! And watch as the bill’s sponsors go to work on Charlie Bolden….

    • Dark Blue Nine

      I’m no fan of the robotic NEO retrieval mission, but this lunar bill is a waste of time. Posey has introduced and reintroduced it multiple times, and it’s never gone anywhere. Buy a clue, Congressman.

  • E.P. Grondine

    While I alwyas thought the paradigm shift would be to the Moon based detectors of CAPS (the Comet and Asteroid Protection Sysyem),

    IMO, this new proposal is a winner: within budget, makes use of exisiting tech base, satisfies national goals, and can get broad based public support as it satisfies the publics’ desires.

    Unless those mambers of the Congress interested can get enough backing for the CAPS instruments on the Moon, this looks to me like a good intermediate step that places the US in a good position to work on CAPS in the mid 20′s.

    Yeah, I know the engineering realities, and you do too, but we all also know the political realities as well. I think they’ve managed to save SLS and Orion with this. Thet’ve pulled a rabbit out of the hat here, and from the released CGI’s this has been going on for quite a while.

    Pretty slick; well done.

  • amightywind

    Normally, the purpose of the Whitehouse budget is to guide congress in producing theirs. Since both houses approved their budgets weeks ago, the conference bill will lie between those endpoints. What will Obama do if he doesn’t like the result, veto and force a government shutdown? Obama’s budget is left of the Senate’s leftist bill and is thus irrelevant.

  • Mark R. Whittington

    The one interesting thing about the asteroid snagging mission is that it gets Obama’s mission to a rock out of the way for a fraction of the cost and places it, provided it has water and other volatiles, in position to support a return to the moon provided (as I suspect) the next president ignores General Bolden’s edict and turns the direction back from the detour Obama sent it in.

    • Fred Willett

      …it gets Obama’s mission to a rock out of the way for a fraction of the cost…
      $100M is a drop in the bucket. Estimate for full mission is $2.6B.
      Where’s that comming from?
      The problem has always been there is no money in the budget for missions so long as you’ve got to pay for SLS.
      If you cancelled SLS, of course, you would have money for missions, but no SLS to carry them.
      There are two ways out of this bind.
      1/ increase NASA’s budget so there is money for SLS AND missions. Well we all know what chance there is of that in these restricted times.
      2/ Scrap SLS and think of some other way of doing things where there is money for some sort of cheaper (D1V or FH) launcher AND money for missions.
      The fact that NASA chooses (1) and not (2) says a lot about what NASA really thinks of exploration.

    • Robert G. Oler

      Mark Whittington wrote

      “in position to support a return to the moon provided (as I suspect) the next president ignores General Bolden’s edict and turns the direction back from the detour Obama sent it in.”

      Why do you “suspect” that? Other then a personal preference that you have why would you suspect that a President sworn in in 17, whose name is unknown to anyone now (we dont even have all the possible field in yet) would take a course of action that not even Willard Mitt Romney who you predicted would win the Presidency, mocked.

      Come on Mark tell us why you “suspect” this?

      Wishful thinking…what happened to you? RGO

    • Matt

      Agreed, Mark. That may be an unspoken admission by the Administration of what their successors may have in mind. The path to the Martian plains really starts with not just deep-space operations, but relearning planetary surface operations in a space environment. An asteroid’s too small for that.

      • JimNobles

        I think you should take notice of what the people who are actually working on getting to Mars think. That’s the Mars next faction in NASA (btw, bigger and more powerful than the moon next faction) and Elon Musk with SpaceX. Neither NASA or SpaceX thinks the road to Mars goes through the Moon. If people want to go to the moon that’s fine. But it is unnecessary for going to Mars.

  • Dave Klingler

    Fred Willett et al:

    “The fact that NASA chooses (1) and not (2) says a lot about what NASA really thinks of exploration.”

    NASA doesn’t choose (1). In fact, NASA doesn’t even choose its budget priorities. Those are generally put together with an eye toward what Congress will support, and then marked up by Congress. I.e., Congress ultimately chooses whether NASA will explore space next year or simply spend X dollars in congressional districts Y and Z. Given the choice between two types of priorities, (a) explore space or (b) spend money in certain districts, what do you think Congressional priorities are for NASA’s budget?

    Every time NASA spends money on a program that provides few advances toward space exploration, the blame falls on NASA. And that’s the way that politicians would have it. But that’s not at all accurate.

    • Fred Willett

      You’re perfectly correct. What I said was sloppy short-hand for a complicated process.
      But it does make for a much shorted post (cheesy grin)
      and who wants an essay?
      The point is there are alternatives that get us somewhere. The political process that delivers us the program of record gets us nowhere and has done that since the conclusion of apollo.

  • DCSCA

    “The highest profile initiative is beginning work on a mission to retrieve a small asteroid and return it to cislunar space, where it will be visited by astronauts on an SLS/Orion mission, possibly the already scheduled EM-2 mission in 2021.”

    Why?

    What is the base rationale for American HSF initiatives in the 21st century to begin with? Flags and footprints? Projecting political power and economic vigor on Earth? That philosophy; critical reasoning for generating public support to maintain funding and future expenditures in an era of fiscal austerity remains unanswered.

    And who gave the United States authorization to begin manipulating the natural order of things in the night sky? Did God speak to Obama? Or Nelson?

    What is the position of other world governments on Americans unilaterally deciding to tow asteroids into lunar orbit? Luna is not a state or U.S. territory.

    Project Lasso will never happen. And there will be room on the shelf in the Obama Presidential Library for all the paperwork about it, right next to the files on cancelling Constellation.

    • James

      The beauty of the asteroid capture and return mission, and how it ties in with SLS/MPCV is the elegance of the fig leaf it provides to cover for no real NASA HSF Mission.

      It allows folks to say we now have a purpose for SLS/MPVC without having to spend any new money.

      Wasn’t the whole purpose of going to an Asteroid ‘out there’ that is forces one to develop the technologies for astro’s to survive outside cis lunar space, which then serves the longer term goals (as Bolden always says) of going to Mars by 2035?

      Now one does not have to spend monies on those deep space technologies as the asteroid will be right here , parked in lunar orbit.

      Very clever game being played.

      • DCSCA

        “It allows folks to say we now have a purpose for SLS/MPVC without having to spend any new money.”

        SLS/MPCV is a geo-political strategy for the U.S… and this missions ‘purpose’ serves ‘no purpose’ other than to be a shiny diversion; a place holder while SLS/MPCV keeps plodding along in development. Project Lasso will never fly– but it is the sort of goofy proposal you’d expect some bored mission planner at JSC/Houston to come with after a weekend of beers and brautwurst at a Texas rodeo. Apologies for typos.

    • Dave Klingler

      The base rationale is developing a necessary skill for space colonization. Not space exploration. Colonization.

      If humans leave the Earth and colonize space one day, they won’t live on the Moon. Or Mars. Or any other planet in our solar system, for that matter. We’ll live on rotating space stations with 1G gravity, and we’ll grab incoming asteroids for their resources. We’ll do that because to talk about living on another gravity well is just silly when we can build better-suited and more comfortable environments in orbit, more easily and more quickly.

      We may think of planets as necessary now, but some day, hopefully, we’ll shake that assumption.

      • DCSCA

        The base rationale is developing a necessary skill for space colonization. Not space exploration. Colonization.

        And why is that rationale a buurden for the american peopel to carry? There are 6 billion humans on this planet and only 310 million of them are Americans– and not support among that 310 million is tepid at best, and more often, quixodic as a norm.

  • Aberwys

    Capture an asteroid?! Someone really sold that circa 2006/7 BS study paper written not by NASA, but by Lockheed Martin…

    • Dave Klingler

      What part of capturing an asteroid sounds like BS to you?

      We know how to direct them using several methods. The bag method is one, flying next to them is another, and various other ways have been examined extensively.

      A tiny thrust applied to a 500-ton asteroid over millions of miles, if you’ve taken high school physics, adds up.

      Using larger bodies such as the Moon to brake them isn’t that big a deal. We watch it happen all the time, and we use it for space probes.

      So what part of this proposal is difficult? Have you thought it through, or researched the idea? Have you read the Keck paper?

      • Robert G. Oler

        Dave Klingler
        April 10, 2013 at 10:35 pm · Reply

        What part of capturing an asteroid sounds like BS to you?>>

        Oh a lot of things

        A few threads back DBN does a pretty good job of analyzing the technical “first” that this program is trying…I kind of think of it much like the Zumwalt destroyer…”almost everything is to be invented”

        NASA has no experience with detumbling “anything” period…no it hasnt even tried doing it with a “dead” satellite.

        So now they are going to try and match “rates” with a very massive object, some distance away from earth where it almost all has to be done “automatically” and then it has to be detumbled all while well keeping a very massive thing inside a capture bag that is probably not all that strong…expandable foam. Yeah

        Then we could talk about trying to manuever that Massive thing back to a libration point and somehow figure out how to keep it there…

        The entire notion is “entertaining” but one can imagine the technical pitfalls that will 1) drive up cost, 2) cause failure and 3) cause the whole affair to become another “viewgraph” mission

        Robert G. Oler

        • I agree, DBN put out many great questions regarding the NEO Capture. The argument may not be, or need not be, so centered on “us” and what “we can do” in applying technologies. The harder part is really understanding what we’re dealing with in that object out there. How do we get what we need?
          OBSERVE-TOUCH-EARLY-OFTEN

      • DCSCA

        “What part of capturing an asteroid sounds like BS to you?” quips Dave.

        All of it.

        There’s simply no rationale for it. Project lasso ain’t gonna happen. Mut it makes for clever palce holding until a fresh administrtion with a different perspective comes in.

      • James

        NASA has a hard time staying in cost boxes for missions that are as low as $150M. Then there is JWST. What evidence is there that NASA knows how to cost out, then develop, and fly an ambitious mission of this sort (all new technologies) and have it come in on cost, on time, and works? How about Zero. NASA is great at getting things to work, but always over cost and behind schedule. This mission has all those risks associated with it.

        And in the end, its just a fig leaf.

  • Robert G. Oler

    DCSCA
    April 10, 2013 at 8:26 pm · Reply

    And who gave the United States authorization to begin manipulating the natural order of things in the night sky? Did God speak to Obama? Or Nelson? >>

    as the right wing will tell you, “god” or what they call “God” only talks to right wing religious types…

    Having said that the least objectionable part of this is “Manipulating the heavens”…we manipulate things all the time; that is what makes us better then the monkeys RGO

    • DCSCA

      Uh, RGO, ‘we’ haven’t manipulated anything off planet on the scale of asteroids tumbling in orbits for eons regardless of their gravity fields- weak or strong. And the point remains valid- who gave the United States the authorization to start messing with the natural order of the night sky? Maybe the bulk of ther 7 beilion souls on this planet aren’t keen on having another ‘moon’ or two orbiting Luna- it isn’t a state ot a U.S. territory. Sober up.

      • mt noise

        Oh I agree the capture idea will never happen. That said, why should we care what the other 6-7 billion think? For that matter, what if we build a base on the moon and then declare the territory around it a new state? Let them build a rocket and claim their own territory.

  • It is a politically palatable budget and gives the great “story arc” to much of what NASA seems be directed to be doing. Lament the zero dollars for Europa, would like to have seen that one funded.

    GOP on board? Fox News had an editorial strongly supporting this asteroid proposal;
    http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2013/04/10/why-americans-must-support-nasa-plan-to-capture-asteroid/

    Let’s hope NASA as a political controversy subsides and keeps at least the funding it has.

  • Aberwys

    I _know_ it’s BS. I was there when the first version of the came out from LM, lomg begore the Keck report.

    The motivation was: “Now that Constellation is becoming extinct, how do we address our sunk costs and keep our company afloat?” LM had started to lay ppl off, the Colorado Advanced Manufacturing research park was stood up to help with the loss, it came and went and BAZINGA! The original study paper emerged about 5 years later in prettier wrapping, with NEOs and asteroid cowboys in tow.

    I don’t need to postulate or imagine any other reasons beyond what I directly witnessed.

  • vulture4

    This would be a pretty expensive undertaking and the budget estimates seem unrealistic, particularly if one adds in the cost for SLS and Orion. I’d be glad to see it happen but right now there have been only two asteroid rendezvous missions and only one sample return, and I think a few more such missions to a spectrum of asteroid types would be more productive scientifically.

  • Matt

    One needs to be reminded of an old D.C. adage: “The Administration proposes, the Congress disposes.” The Administration’s FY 11 request was a stark reminder of that. And watch for the Hearings to be quite heated. One should not disregard the opinions of the Congresscritters making the lunar-return proposal: they sit on the Science and Technology Committee that deals with NASA, and their views should not be disregarded.

  • DCSCA

    Stephen Colbert, a vocal space advocate BTW, roundly skewered ‘Project Lasso’ in his show-opening lampoon Thursday evening. It’s already a national joke. A punchline along with ‘Newt Gingrich, Moon President.’

  • vulture4

    I don’t actually disagree with the idea, it’s just hard to see bringing the asteroid back all this way and not putting it in a medium earth orbit where it will not decay but can be easily accessed. That would avoid the need for a manned moon rocket to reach it. Presumably the idea would be to used the asteroid for on-orbit construction, i.e. radiation shielding. There may be only a few accessible objects and most asteroids are ordinary chondrites and won’t provide a lot of precious metals. Maybe just as well if it would disintegrate on atmospheric entry.

    OTOH this means more cuts in planetary science and commercial crew.

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