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|
|- Earth Science||$1,826.0||$1,770.3|
|- Planetary Science||$1,345.0||$1,280.3|
|- Commercial Spaceflight||$696.0||$848.3|
|- Exploration R&D||$302.0||$343.4|
|- Space and Flight Support||n/a||$854.6|
|CROSS AGENCY SUPPORT||$2,793.0||$2,778.6||$2,778.6|
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.”