Congress, NASA

“They upped the game on me”: sequestration and the challenges of funding NASA’s exploration program

On Tuesday, the Marshall Institute and the TechAmerica Space Enterprise Council hosted an event titled “Beyond Earth: Removing the Barriers to Deep Space Exploration” in Washington. (The event was broadcast on NASA TV and archived on YouTube.) NASA associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier and representatives of four major aerospace companies—Aerojet Rocketdyne, ATK, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin—gave an overview of NASA’s exploration efforts, including the status of the development of the Space Launch System launch vehicle and Orion spacecraft and the agency’s plans to use them for missions beyond Earth orbit.

In his slides opening the 90-minute event, Gerstenmaier identified six key principles for a “sustainable” NASA exploration program. The first on the list had to deal with funding: “Executable with current budget with modest increases.” “We have to recognize there’s a finite budget, and our activities have to be executable within the budget we have available to us,” he said. That issue, though, came up in the Q&A session after the panel discussion: is it realistic to expect “modest increases” in NASA’s budget—or any increases at all—in the current fiscal environment?

It was clear that the uncertainty about budgets is a topic of frustration for Gerstenmaier. “I’m continually amazed at how the Congress can figure out new ways to calculate new numbers and provide those to us,” he said. “Probably my biggest challenge is not so much the level of the budget but the uncertainty associated with the budget.” He noted that he didn’t have final fiscal year 2013 budget numbers until August, when the agency’s operating plan for the year was finally approved; the fiscal year ended September 30. “That’s a lot of uncertainty to manage through. It’s hard to tell companies how to plan for that.”

That uncertainty continues into 2014, with a continuing resolution funding the agency at 2013 levels through January 15. “We’re not sure what we’ll get for sequester, or not, and I don’t know exactly what the sequester level is,” he said. That makes it impossible to state exactly what impacts the budget will have on NASA’s exploration programs. “I learned to live and operate under continuing resolutions, and I thought I had that mastered,” he added. “Then we got sequester, and they upped the game on me.”

That desire for stability was echoed by one of the industry panelists at Tuesday’s event. “Stability with that funding over a long period of time, I think, is as important as the level of funding going forward,” said John Elbon, vice president and general manager of Boeing Space Exploration. Such stability, though, may be more of a challenge for NASA’s exploration program than any technological issue.

6 comments to “They upped the game on me”: sequestration and the challenges of funding NASA’s exploration program


    “In his slides opening the 90-minute event, Gerstenmaier identified six key principles for a “sustainable” NASA exploration program.”

    This guy’s shuttle era/ISS deadwood.
    ‘Nuff said.

  • Hiram

    Elbon’s comment about the importance of long term funding commitments is precisely right. To the extent that space is an arena for international competition, the U.S. is at a serious disadvantage unless it can plan for outyear expenses. As Gerst notes, it’s not even so much “stability” as it is an assured roadmap of funding commitment. If the annual investment in federally funded commercial space is going to go down, one can make the best of a bad situation by smartly planning for that decrease, years in advance. Trying to hold ones cards for both an annual increase or a decrease in funding — roll the dice — is pretty insane.

    Now, it really doesn’t help much that NASA is perceived, whether as curiosity-driven science or muscle-flexing human spaceflight entertainment, as a highly optional activity. DOD funding tracks the national need for defense investment. If you need to have a war, you’d better pay for it, and it’s largely wars (cold and hot) that determine DOD budget bumps. But the national need for NASA activities is much harder to quantify.

  • amightywind

    What is the chief barrier to BEO? The $3 billion annual deferral of funds to the dead end ISS. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that. BEO is unsustainable because ISS is being sustained.

    • Coastal Ron

      amightywind said:

      What is the chief barrier to BEO?

      1. The knowledge needed to understand what the solutions are so humans can survive on BEO missions – which is what the ISS is for.

      2. The lack of an AFFORDABLE exploration architecture.

      The $3B/year SLS/MPCV pork programs don’t address either of those barriers.

  • vulture4

    The rationales for human spaceflight don’t seem very meaningful. There was no meaningful discussion of the total program cost and who could afford to pay for a ride.

  • josh

    nasa tv is most boring biggest ego stroking non entertaining expense we pay for. I dare anyone to try to watch 4 hours of it, its just video clips of nasa officials standing in photo op lines stroking their own ego. we actualy have to pay the cable providers to carry it. its 24 hours a day 365 days a year commercial for nasa that the taxpayers pay for for nasa officials to stroke their egos.

    decist and defund nasa having its own tv station without actualy having any programs is the biggest waiste of American taxes or at least in top three. you cant even find its ratings with the hubble telescope its so tiny.

    big joke, stupid idea, abuse of American taxpayers cut nasa’a budget if that’s what moneys used for, I dare anyone to watch it for 6 hours straight, it cant be done its that useless and boring.

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