NASA

NASA FY 2015 budget supports asteroids, Europa, and commercial crew, but sacrifices SOFIA

First, let’s set the table (figuratively and literally) for NASA’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal:

Account FY14 Omnibus FY15 PBR FY15 PBR + OGSI
SCIENCE $5,151.2 $4,972.0 $5,159.3
- Earth Science $1,826.0 $1,770.3
- Planetary Science $1,345.0 $1,280.3
- Astrophysics $668.0 $607.3
- JWST $658.2 $645.4
- Heliophysics $654.0 $668.9
SPACE TECHNOLOGY $576.0 $705.5 $805.5
AERONAUTICS $566.0 $551.1 $595.0
EXPLORATION SYSTEMS $4,113.2 $3,976.0 $4,326.0
- SLS/Orion $3,115.2 $2,784.4
- Commercial Spaceflight $696.0 $848.3
- Exploration R&D $302.0 $343.4
SPACE OPERATIONS $3,778.0 $3,905.4 $4,006.0
- ISS n/a $3,050.8
- Space and Flight Support n/a $854.6
EDUCATION $116.6 $88.9 $98.9
CROSS AGENCY SUPPORT $2,793.0 $2,778.6 $2,778.6
CONSTRUCTION $515.0 $446.1 $539.8
INSPECTOR GENERAL $37.5 $37.0 $37.0
TOTAL $17,646.5 $17,460.6 $18,346.1

While not that different from 2014, the president’s budget request (PBR), both for NASA and the overall federal government, has one curveball in it: besides the baseline funding requests, the budget proposal also includes a supplementary funding line, called the Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative (OGSI). This additional $56 billion in spending, split evenly between defense and non-defense programs, would be paid for through “common-sense spending reforms” and reducing tax benefits of very large retirement accounts. For NASA, OGSI would provide $885.5 million in additional spending on top of the baseline $17.46 billion request, spread across most agency accounts.

Arguably the biggest surprise in the budget proposal involved a relatively small program. The budget proposal would effectively end funding for NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a 747 aircraft with a 2.5-meter telescope capable of doing infrared astronomy at altitudes above much of the infrared-absorbing constituents of the atmosphere. After a long, and sometimes troubled, development, SOFIA is just now entering routine operations, with a planned 20-year lifetime. NASA pays about 80 percent of SOFIA’s cost, at an annual budget of about $85 million, with the German space agency DLR paying the remainder.

“SOFIA has earned its way, it has done very well, but I had to make a choice, and that choice was that we would focus on those other efforts” in NASA’s science programs, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in a media teleconference Tuesday afternoon about the budget. He said NASA would work with DLR and others “to find a way to get as much science as we can in the remaining parts of 2014 and then come up with a go-forward plan for 2015.” If NASA can’t get DLR or other partners to pay for NASA’s current share of mission operations, the airplane will be placed in storage in FY15.

Speaking at a meeting of the Space Studies Board immediately after the release of the FY15 budget proposal Tuesday afternoon, Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, said that SOFIA was the victim of an astrophysics budget that dropped sharply in the proposal versus 2014: from $668 million to $607 million. “Within that reduced budget, SOFIA doesn’t fit any more,” he said. NASA informed DLR of its plans prior to the release of the budget, he said, and the two agencies have agreed to establish a working group to study options for the telescope. Hertz later said he was skeptical that the telescope’s current operating costs could be reduced much, given that much of the overhead is in the form of jet fuel and costs to operate the aircraft safely that don’t offer much flexibility.

The news was somewhat better elsewhere in the agency. Advocates of a mission to Europa got a bit of good news with word that the budget includes a small amount of funding to support “pre-formulation” activities for such a mission, after Congress had specifically earmarked funding for Europa mission development in the final FY13 and FY14 appropriations bills. However, the requested amount is small: $15 million, versus the $80 million Congress appropriated for it in 2014. NASA officials were also vague about exactly what this mission would be and how much it would cost, even though the agency has been studying a “Europa Clipper” mission concept. “We’re frankly just not sure at this point” how big and expensive a mission that might be, NASA CFO Beth Robinson said, expecting such a mission would be ready for launch some time around the mid-2020s.

The funding requested for commercial crew, $848 million, is more than the $696 million it’s set to receive in 2014, but is not that much more than the FY14 request of $821 million. However, NASA’s plans for OGSI would give the program an additional $250 million. Robinson said she couldn’t discuss many details about the use of that funding since the agency is still in a “blackout period” while evaluating proposals for the next round of the program, with a decision not planned until late August. “We can say we’re confident the $848 [million] will allow us to maintain competition in this program,” she said. The additional OGSI funding, she said, “is important to have even more robust competition and to buy down risk.”

The budget also includes $133 million for NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) plans, up from $78 million in FY14; the difference is increased funding for solar electric propulsion (SEP) work in the space technology program. That work will also support a Mission Concept Review in early winter of 2015, which Robinson said will be used to “downselect to the key architecture for that mission.”

Bolden, perhaps indirectly responding to last week’s criticism of NASA’s long-term human spaceflight plans, emphasized that the asteroid mission was a key part of a “stepping stone approach” for human missions that eventually will send humans to Mars. “In order to carry out these pioneering missions, we have to develop technologies with the Asteroid Redirect Mission that will lead to subsequent first crewed missions to Mars,” he said in his opening remarks. Later, in response to a question about ARM funding, Bolden said, “The Asteroid Redirect Mission is one step on the pathway to Mars. It is a very critical step: it gives up the opportunity to demonstrate many technologies, such as high-power SEP, that will be needed as we proceed on to Mars.”

27 comments to NASA FY 2015 budget supports asteroids, Europa, and commercial crew, but sacrifices SOFIA

  • Dark Blue Nine

    SOFIA’s retirement is long overdue:

    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v466/n7305/full/466413a.html

    “The budget also includes $133 million for NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) plans, up from $78 million in FY14…”

    Did ARM get anything in FY14 appropriations? Congress zeroed it out, and told NASA to come back with a better justification, right?

    “Bolden said, ‘The Asteroid Redirect Mission is one step on the pathway to Mars. It is a very critical step: it gives up the opportunity to demonstrate many technologies, such as high-power SEP, that will be needed as we proceed on to Mars.’”

    Then let’s test a high-power SEP on a dedicated tech demo mission for hundreds of millions of dollars instead of putting a new propulsion technology on the critical path of a multi-billion dollar operational mission.

    How dumb…

    • Hiram

      You point to a Nature article from four years ago. That was when the SOFIA project was undergoing a major reorganization. Reviews of the project at that time were correspondingly critical. A major SRB review was held this last summer, and their conclusions about the progress and potential were highly supportive and complementary.

      So what is probably long overdue is a reference to a contemporary Nature article.

      http://www.nature.com/news/sofia-irons-out-technical-kinks-1.14769

      SOFIA has taken far too long to become operational, but it is insane to pull the rug out from under it just as it is coming to fruition.

      • Coastal Ron

        Hiram said:

        SOFIA has taken far too long to become operational, but it is insane to pull the rug out from under it just as it is coming to fruition.

        Sounds like the same argument that was made for the JWST.

        I don’t know anything about SOFIA, but in general I like to think that no program is immune from cancellation – that you have to keep not only proving your worth, but showing why you are better than other choices. In that regard they apparently have not been able to show that they are more important than other funding choices… who is the blame for that? Maybe no one, but in a fixed budget environment something has to give. Tag, they are it.

      • Dark Blue Nine

        “So what is probably long overdue is a reference to a contemporary Nature article.”

        That article is even more chock full of SOFIA problems:

        “Wooden, an astrophysicist at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, was on board in the hope of capturing images of warm dust spewing off Comet ISON (see Nature 506, 281–283; 2014). But soon after she pointed the telescope at the comet, a circuit-breaker failed. It could not be replaced until the plane landed. Instead of nearly an hour observing the comet, Wooden got just a few minutes.”

        “Yet just as momentum starts to build, SOFIA will be grounded for a 5.5-month maintenance check mandated by the US government. That will limit the upcoming observing cycle to 222 hours, or fewer than 32 nights (see ‘Up in the air’), and leave astronomers trying to grab what flight hours they can, when they can. SOFIA will not reach its goal of 960 research hours in a calendar year until 2016.”

        “Nine SOFIA flights were lost to the shutdown, including planned observations of a bright exploding star in the constellation Delphinus. ‘We lost the nova!’ says Robert Gehrz, an astronomer at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and chair of the SOFIA users advisory group.”

        “Technical troubles were also to blame. One instrument sprang a helium leak. Another experienced problems with its power supply and the fasteners used to attach it in the tele­scope cavity. Some images are still less than ideal because the telescope shakes during flight.”

        “Keeping a modified jumbo jet flying night after night carries other challenges. Late last year, for example, a damaged turbine blade meant that an entire engine had to be replaced. The cost of employing pilots, technicians and mechanics adds up. The mission’s $78-million annual operation budget is the second most expensive in NASA’s astrophysics division, after the $93 million needed to keep the Hubble Space Telescope going.”

        “SOFIA has found itself scooped by the European Space Agency’s Herschel space telescope, an infrared instrument launched in 2009. SOFIA was meant to be a pathfinder for Herschel, but instead has been left to chase interesting targets identified by the space telescope, which ceased operations last year.”

        The last one is the most damning. It’s one thing to keep trying to work out the technical kinks on a telescope (and aircraft) even when it keeps spoiling observations. It’s another to spend tens of millions of dollars trying to make a telescope operational when it is out-of-date and has been lapped by its contemporaries.

        NASA isn’t a retirement home for sick, out-of-date science instruments. SOFIA was an overly complex and bad concept. It’s past time to put it out of its (and our) misery.

        “SOFIA has taken far too long to become operational, but it is insane to pull the rug out from under it just as it is coming to fruition.”

        Sunk cost fallacy:

        http://www.lifehack.org/articles/communication/how-the-sunk-cost-fallacy-makes-you-act-stupid.html

        • Hiram

          The title of the article was that SOFIA is working out technical kinks. The paragraphs you quote were just intended to illustrate those kinks that are successfully being worked out. Oooh, a circuit breaker. Grab that rug and start pulling! Cancel the program!! You name a project, and I’ll pick and choose quotes that identify “kinks” that it has. I can thusly shoot down any project you want, I guess, right? You chose to ignore the title of the article. Was that an argumentative kink?

          I further have to guess you’ve never been on an airplane flight that was cancelled because of a hardware problem. If you have a hardware problem on a space mission, you’re likely sunk. If you have a problem on an airplane, you fix it and fly. You lose a day or two. No sweat. So that’s really a strength that you’re pointing to, rather than a weakness. SOFIA is hands-on science.

          As to chasing interesting targets identified by Herschel, well, that’s just the way science works, where you go after interesting things identified by previous workers, but you ideally do it with new sensors that tell you different things. It would have been nice if SOFIA had first crack at some of these things, but that it didn’t hardly justifies pulling the rug out from under it.

          Consider humans to Mars. Gosh, they’re just going to be following up things that our rovers are doing. Those rovers really scooped our plans to send astronauts there, didn’t they? So let’s pull the rug out from under our hopes to send humans to Mars to do science. I’m serious. The first plans for doing science on Mars never ever considered that a lot of it would be done robotically.

          As to “sick, out of date science instruments”, that’s just a totally fabricated and strangely biased comment. The instrumentation on SOFIA is cutting edge. New instruments are coming on line to do things that previous observatories couldn’t touch.

          “Sunk costs” don’t apply to SOFIA. SOFIA works. It’s taking data and papers are being published in quality journals. Just that simple. It’s doing what it was supposed to do. So “sunk costs” is perhaps a fallacy, but just in your post.

          Now, that doesn’t forgive the management mistakes that led to the delay of the program. Lessons were learned.

  • MrEarl

    First time that that this administration presented a budget that seems reasonable on the whole. Money to get SLS/Orion spending to where it should be should come from OGSI. Seems to me that NASA and Congress is just in a holding patern with the human exploration program.

    It’s time to down select commercial crew to one primary and one secondary. SpaceX seems to be the furthest ahead and therefore should get primary status with SNC as secondary because it provides different capabilities.

    • Coastal Ron

      MrEarl said:

      Seems to me that NASA and Congress is just in a holding patern with the human exploration program.

      Are you implying that a big jump in funding is supposed to be coming? Or are you saying that within the current budget profile an exploration plan can be executed?

      • MrEarl

        NASA funding should stay static for the foreseeable future.
        ESA, JAXA and a few private endevours are interested in CIS-lunar space and a return to the moon as a stepping stone to Mars. Buy 2017 the biggest expence of SLS and Orion development will be past. Joining with our partners in Europe, Japan and the private sector there will be the money and expertise for the next steps.

        • Coastal Ron

          MrEarl said:

          Buy 2017 the biggest expence of SLS and Orion development will be past. Joining with our partners in Europe, Japan and the private sector there will be the money and expertise for the next steps.

          Of course the SLS can only be safely used if it is flown once per year (per NASA), which right away sucks up a good portion of the available funding. And ESA, JAXA and private sector partners may not want to ignore their own transportation systems and gamble their future on a one-of-a-kind launch system that could be cancelled by future political deals.

          I have yet to see a cost estimate for an SLS-based exploration program that can fit within a static NASA budget. Have you?

        • Dark Blue Nine

          “ESA, JAXA and a few private endevours are interested in CIS-lunar space and a return to the moon as a stepping stone to Mars.”

          ESA and JAXA aren’t putting development money into any cislunar efforts. JAXA is pursuing Hayabusa 2, an asteroid mission, and ESA is pursuing ExoMars, a Mars mission.

          As for “private endevours [sic]“, Golden Spike is not considering SLS or MPCV.

          [quote]
          Buy 2017 the biggest expence of SLS and Orion development will be past.
          [/quote]

          Nope. ECLSS development and abort tests have been pushed off until after 2017. Man-rating would still be needed for MPCV. RS-25 production restart and some booster development would be needed to maintain SLS Block I. And then there’s Block II development.

          [quote]
          Joining with our partners in Europe, Japan and the private sector there will be the money and expertise for the next steps.
          [/quote]

          Europa and Japan have no expertise to offer in human space flight (nevertheless human space exploration), their space agency budgets are a fraction of NASA’s, and their economies are facing bigger demographic and integration issues than ours.

        • Vladislaw

          MrEarl wrote: “Buy 2017 the biggest expence of SLS and Orion development will be past.”

          In a SpaceNews article from 2011 about the Booz Allen report:

          ““NASA should treat the estimates as serviceable point estimates for budget planning in the near-term 3-5 year budget horizon as they represent the basis upon which future estimates can be constructed,” Booz Allen Hamilton wrote in the conclusion appended to a summary of the report.

          However, the consulting firm warned that “due to procurement of items still in development and large cost risks in the out years, NASA cannot have full confidence in the estimates for long-term planning.” ”

          Five years puts you to the end of 2016, so 2017 is ACTUALLY the year that independtant analysis said to look out and start to worry. Quite the opposite from what you are saying. Also the OIG recently reported that the MPCV.Orion could easily hit 16.5 billion, just for the development.

          The 70 ton Block I could easily burn through 30 billion and block II will push that even higher. 50-60 billion just to develop the SLS and Orion … is it any wonder there isn’t any funding for anything else…. insanity on a bun.

        • Vladislaw

          You can read the results from BA here .. but NASA would’t allow the release of all it.

          Look at how credible NASA cost estimates are? This is laughable.

          http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/581582main_BAH_Executive_Summary.pdf

  • amightywind

    Since there is already a House and Senate budget deal, spending levels are fixed. Obama has minimal influence to shift allocations. Commercial crew down select is indeed long overdue. Boeing would be the most logical and least risky choice.

    • Ben Russell-Gough

      Possibly most expensive though, because Boeing does things the old way.

    • josh

      boeing would be the worst choice. their capsule is less capable and more expensive than dragon.

      • Michael Kent

        In what way is CST-100 less capable than DragonRider?

        Both will carry a seven-man crew. Both will be re-usable ten times. Both will use a pusher escape system. Both will land on land.

        After that, I think you’re down in the weeds.

        • josh

          the cst-100 is not designed for beo missions. it runs on batteries (dragon has solar panels), its heat shield is less sturdy and it won’t land using thrusters (like dragon) thus requiring more maintenance/refurbishing after a mission. also, it will be way more expensive, we’re talking about boing here. prime fat cat.

  • josh

    three billion wasted on orion and sls, commerical crew gets barely enough (if congress can be brought to go along).

  • MrEarl

    “Europa[sis]and Japan have no expertise to offer in human space flight (nevertheless human space exploration),”
    Sure they do, they are gaining it on the ISS.

    “Golden Spike is not considering SLS or MPCV.”
    I never mentioned Golden Spike.

    • Dark Blue Nine

      “Sure they do, they are gaining it on the ISS”

      If a couple pressurized containers count as experience developing human space exploration systems, sure.

      “I never mentioned Golden Spike.”

      Who else is there? FairyMoonDust, Inc.?

  • seamus

    NASA budget should — and easily could — be doubled to $35 billion. U.S. military budget is nearly $500 billion, more than the next 10 countries combined spend on defense. $500B is more than 25 fully-funded space programs.

    • seamus

      Estimates of corporate welfare spending — generous tax breaks for businesses who generally don’t need them — range from $100 to $150 billion annually in the U.S. Why space advocates spend so much energy fighting about which programs within NASA should be killed and which deserve funding is beyond me. That’s all small potatoes. Oil companies get over $4 billion every year in tax breaks. Spend that on NASA and we can stop worrying about SLS vs this and SOFIA vs that.

      • Neil Shipley

        This is totally irelevant since there is no way that NASA’s budget is going to increase even marginally.
        Don’t you get it. The general U.S. taxpayer doesn’t give a fig about space or what NASA’s doing. Zip, nado, zero, nothing. Therefore why would the WH or Congress in general be at all interested. It’s a non-issue.

    • Hiram

      I think the way to look at it is not that it’s easy to fund NASA at $35B/yr, but that it’s a real challenge to fund it at $17B/yr. The public thinks that what NASA does is pretty cool, but other than that it doesn’t offer them much (unlike military expenditures). It’s a stretch to think that federal dollars should be expended in the interest of “coolness”.

    • josh

      nasa’s budget is sufficient. cancel sls and orion and there is plenty of money for projects that actually make some sense.

  • Why space advocates spend so much energy fighting about which programs within NASA should be killed and which deserve funding is beyond me.

    Why? It’s because…

    ” Oil companies get over $4 billion every year in tax breaks. Spend that on NASA and we can stop worrying about SLS vs this and SOFIA vs that.”

    …we know that there’s a snowball’s chance of that scenario actually happening. Anybody can say ‘just take the money from X.’ (For non-space advocates, NASA often is their preferred ‘X’ to rob for whatever they think is more important.)

    “That’s all small potatoes.”

    True. And irrelevant. NASA’s not going to be given someone else’s potatoes without a major fight. Work within what’s likely to be achievable, not within a fantasy of unlimited reallocation of government money.

    ‘NASA budget should — and easily could — be doubled to $35 billion.

    First…no. Not easily. Second, NASA’s primary problem is one of policy, not money. If the ‘One Penny’ advocates got their wish, how would it be spent? Double the money for everything NASA does, right down to janitor salaries? Some of their projects are doing fine. More would only invite waste. Some need more, but not twice as much. More would invite waste. Some do need an approximate doubling, particularly Commercial Crew, but no more than that.

    And some things are a bad idea at any price. Throwing more money at bad policy won’t make it good policy. (Trust me, in a ‘doubled NASA budget’ environment,’ SLS supporters would try to grab more than double their current portion…and still not move the operational date one day closer.)

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