NASA’s new year will start like the old year with funding uncertainty

View full sizeNASAMarshall Space Flight Center headquarters on Redstone Arsenal

HUNTSVILLE, AL – For NASA and its Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, 2011 will start as a replay of 2010, with more uncertainty over the agency’s future.

As 2010 ends, NASA Headquarters in Washington says it is stuck in a “holding pattern” between its old space program, known as Constellation, and its new mission of building a heavy-lift rocket for deep space exploration.

In part, NASA Headquarters blames U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, with whom the White House fought all year over space policy. But Shelby’s office says that there is no reason NASA can’t move forward.

“NASA is just making excuses and continuing to drag its feet, just as it has done for the past two years under the Obama administration,” Shelby spokesman Jonathan Graffeo said Wednesday.

Looming even larger in NASA’s future is the pending arrival in Washington of a new Congress with a Republican-led House of Representatives committed to cut federal spending.

Will the new Congress take a scalpel to NASA’s budget? No one knows. Will NASA make any substantial progress before the new Congress acts? No one expects it.

The last Congress adjourned in December without passing a NASA budget for fiscal year 2011. Instead, NASA was lumped with the rest of the government in a stop-gap funding measure called a continuing resolution. It keeps spending at 2010 levels until it expires in March and prevents NASA from starting or shutting down any programs in the meantime.

That leaves NASA governed by language Shelby inserted in an earlier law requiring it to keep funding Constellation until a new budget is approved, NASA Headquarters says.

“We were hoping that language was going to be removed in the (stop-gap funding bill),” NASA spokesman J.D. Harrington said Tuesday. “It wasn’t.”

Some published estimates say NASA could have to spend as much as $500 million on Constellation, a program Congress has agreed to kill.

But Shelby’s spokesman says that’s not true. There’s no reason NASA can’t use 2010 Constellation funding to start on the new heavy-lift rocket, Graffeo said.

“The continuing resolution doesn’t muddy the waters for them; it continues for the next couple of months the direction from Congress NASA has attempted to ignore for the last couple of years,” Graffeo said. “The Shelby language is unambiguous and sends a clear message to NASA: Use the money Congress appropriates as intended – to build a rocket that will maintain our leadership in space.”

That’s not how Harrington saw it. “Unfortunately, we are still in a holding pattern,” he said.

What should NASA watchers look for in the new year? According to interviews this week, there are several mileposts ahead.

First, will NASA open a heavy-lift vehicle program office at Marshall, the NASA center designated to lead work on the new rocket? There is a heavy-lift planning office there now, but a program office is much more significant.

Second, what will the new Congress do with NASA’s 2011 budget? Will it appropriate the $1.8 billion discussed earlier for heavy lift? Or will it cut the amount or postpone funding?

Third, will NASA be able to pick a design for the new rocket, and how will it handle procurement of the necessary parts? The last Congress authorized a rocket based on the same solid-rocket motor technology that powered the space shuttle.

If NASA opts instead to study a liquid-fueled rocket motor in 2011, some NASA watchers believe that would mean a delay that could put the new rocket in jeopardy.

For now, Harrington said the most NASA can do is “continue working on Constellation and do some initial planning” for the new rocket.

This confusion isn’t new for NASA, which has cycled through decades of debate over balancing its role in the nation’s space program with that of industry.

Obama kicked off the latest round in February when he proposed killing Constellation, which he said was behind schedule and over budget, and replacing it with a new commercial space industry nurtured by federal money. NASA would concentrate on robot missions, Earth science and designing a new heavy-lift rocket, Obama said.

Congress said no to Obama and yes to a new NASA rocket. But Congress did agree to let Constellation die and, anticipating that death, contractors in Huntsville in 2010 killed the jobs of an estimated 800 Huntsville rocket engineers and contractors working on Constellation’s first phase, the Ares I rocket.

Underlying the urgency for NASA – or someone – to move forward now with a new rocket is the fact that in 2011 NASA finally winds down its 30-year old space shuttle program with two final flights to the International Space Station. Soon, America will have no way into space but catching a ride with the Russians.

NASA did more in 2010 than watch the funding battle between Congress and the White House. For some highlights, check here.

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