Funding Puts NASA At Square One Again

By Frank Morring, Jr. 

Congressional action to fund the government through March 4, 2011, leaves NASA pretty much right where it started in February when the Fiscal 2011 budget came out, with everything—from an extra space shuttle flight to early use of commercial replacements for the shuttle—uncertain.
In addition to a short-term continuing resolution (CR), NASA has received its Fiscal 2012 “passback” from the White House Office of Management and Budget along with a strongly worded presidential caution to all federal agencies not to expect much wiggle room on the spending figures it contains.
As President Barack Obama signed the CR, which funds the government until the incoming Congress gets its feet on the ground, top NASA managers huddled to set short-term priorities to match the temporary measure. They continued work started last week when Administrator Charles Bolden and his top aides retreated to a hotel across the street from agency headquarters in Washington to begin figuring out how to face a funding slowdown in the wake of the November elections, which turned control of the House over to deficit-wary Republicans.
In legislative parlance, the latest CR contained no “anomalies” for NASA, continuing funding levels and conditions set out in its Fiscal 2010 appropriation. That means the Constellation program that Obama killed with his budget request remains on the books, as does legislative language prohibiting NASA from embarking upon the White House’s new approach to human spaceflight that would rely on commercial providers.
It remains to be seen where the agency will find the $600 million it needs to mount one more shuttle mission to the International Space Station (ISS) beyond the two scheduled for February and April, and to accelerate development of the commercial cargo craft needed to ease the ISS resupply burden after the shuttle is grounded for good.
“The continuing resolution by itself does not endanger the extra shuttle mission, because on an annualized basis, the continuing resolution provides enough funding to fly the mission,” NASA stated in a canned response to the inevitable question.
The short-term CR casts a shadow over plans to launch a risk-reduction flight of Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Taurus II vehicle next year to hasten its ability to deliver cargo to the ISS after the shuttle is retired. The Dulles, Va.-based company has said it cannot mount the flight on its own, and needs extra cash from NASA to carry it out.
Also uncertain is how NASA will handle the $1.5 billion shortfall in funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, including an extra $200 million that may be due in the next year. NASA’s supporters on Capitol Hill had been hopeful the agency would squeak by on a 10-month CR, giving the agency Fiscal 2010 spending levels through the end of the new fiscal year on Sept. 30, 2011, and removing the restrictions on new starts.
That would have clearly left enough money for the STS-135 shuttle mission tentatively planned for June 2011; given agency managers the flexibility to speed commercial cargo-vehicle development with the Taurus II launch and additional support for Space Exploration Technologies’ Falcon 9 and Dragon cargo vehicles; and allowed NASA to begin the heavy-lift launch vehicle ordered in the agency’s three-year authorization act, which the president also has signed.
Beth Robinson, the agency’s chief financial officer, has told the headquarters mission directorates for exploration and space operations that they will have to use the funds available to them collectively to pay for the programs they have on their separate plates under the new authorization act. The agency is considering combining the two directorates to smooth that process, although a NASA spokesman says “that thinking is ongoing, and a decision has not been made.”

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