Bad Astronomy

NASA’s budget: JWST saved, but not much good news

A few days ago, the US House and Senate compromised on a (partial) federal budget, and President Obama signed it into reality. Among many other things, NASA’s budget was in there. Congress has posted an overview of the bill, which I recommend perusing. Space News has an excellent overview of the budget, as does The Planetary Society blog.

The big picture: NASA will get a total of $17.8 billion for fiscal year 2012, which is about $600M less than last year, and over $900M less than what President Obama wanted.


But totals aren’t necessarily as important as specifics. What are the details?

James Webb Space Telescope

As you may recall, the House wanted to ax the James Webb Space Telescope, literally giving it 0 dollars. The Senate wanted to save it. The new funding just passed gives NASA’s Science Directorate a total of $5.1 billion, which is an increase over last year by about $150 million. That sounds great, but this total includes $530 million for JWST to keep it going.

I’m glad that the project won’t be canceled, but I’m very concerned about the source of that money. I can do that math. All things being equal, a $150M increase with $530M dedicated to JWST means NASA will have to cut other programs to the tune of $380 million. The Congressional summary even says this explicitly:

The agreement accommodates cost growth in the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) by making commensurate reductions in other programs, and institutes several new oversight measures for JWST’s continuing development.

[Emphasis mine.] $380M is a lot. A whole lot. While people working on JWST can breathe a momentary sigh of relief, this will almost certainly put many, many NASA missions on the chopping block. And this doesn’t mean the folks at JWST have it easy either; the bill says costs must be kept under control, and as that passage above says, Congress will be watching. I suspect that if there are any more cost overruns at this point, even Senator Mikulski (of Maryland, where NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the JWST operations center will be) won’t be able to save it.

Even if things go the way they are, it will cost over a billion dollars more than even the President’s request to get JWST into space in 2018. So this year’s budget hit to other missions is not an isolated case; we’ll be seeing more of this over the next few years as well.

I haven’t heard anything specific about fallout with regards to other missions, but I have little doubt this will have a huge impact on future Mars missions, and a proposed mission to orbit Jupiter’s moon Europa (which was recently found to have subsurface lakes of liquid water). Stay tuned.

Commercial space

NASA’s ability to provide money to commercial (that is, private) space companies took a devastating hit in this budget. It’s allocated a bit over $400 million in 2012, less than half of what the President requested ($850M). This will seriously compromise private space companies like SpaceX, which contract through NASA for considerable funding. SpaceX was looking to start launching supplies to the space station in the next few months. There have been many delays to this (the Russians don’t like the idea, for example, which has held things up) and this cut won’t help, now or in the future. This could delay commercial flights by several years, and during that time there will be a drain of trained engineers as well.

In a way, this reminds me of the same problems NASA itself has had since the Shuttle started winding down with no replacement system set up. Short-sightedness like this caused a lot of highly-trained folks to leave, and even if funding is fully restored, it’ll be too late to stop that brain-drain.

As you might expect, I’m pretty unhappy about this. I’m a big supporter of private space launches. In my opinion, this is a huge mistake.

Space Launch System This bit is interesting. NASA has proposed to build a new rocket system that will be capable of lifting much more to orbit than the Shuttle could, and can launch missions into deep space. This Space Launch System is NASA’s answer to the cancellation of the Constellation rocket system, which was over budget and behind schedule when the White House – wisely, again in my opinion – canceled it.

NASA wants a test launch of the SLS in 2014. My friend Andy Chaikin is a historian of NASA – he wrote the book A Man on the Moon which was the basis of the HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon” – and he has grave doubts that the SLS is what NASA needs to spend money and time on. I agree, though the situation is complicated. I’d like to see companies like SpaceX take over that sort of thing, but SpaceX is still young and has only launched four rockets into orbit. I think (and hope) it has what it takes to do the job, but time will tell.

So how did human exploration of space fare in this funding bill? The total allocated is $3.8 billion, which is slightly less than last year. The SLS rocket system gets $1.8 billion of that, and the Orion capsule, designed to carry the humans, will get $1.2 billion.

It seems that Congress wants to spend a lot of money on NASA rockets, but not much on commercial space. If that strikes you as ironic, given the very strong privatization rhetoric used by Republicans for every other aspect of government, then join the club.

I was initially happy when the President wanted a new rocket system for NASA. I’ve been rethinking that stance. I have not made up my mind entirely, given the flux everything is in right now. But I wonder if it makes sense for NASA to build an entirely new rocket right now. Given the huge cuts to science (excepting JWST), I have to wonder what sort of payload they expect to have on top of the SLS. Humans of course, to explore the Moon, Mars, near-Earth asteroids… and I’m all for that, but I want to see big, fully-loaded scientific probes to other planets as well. As Andy points out, NASA isn’t a jobs program. Building a rocket just to build it makes no sense at all. NASA needs a long-term plan, and it has to include science and manned exploration. Unfortunately, with chaotically blowing political winds, that kind of long-range thinking is nearly impossible.


I don’t have a solid conclusion here. I’m marginally happy about JWST, but as I predicted, funding it means robbing Peter to pay Paul. How many missions will be savaged to pay for this?

And as I’ve said before, over and again: this is all ridiculous. The thing to do is double NASA’s budget. It’s a tiny fraction of the US budget – less than 1% – and it produces a huge amount of knowledge, inspiration, and, if that’s the sort of thing you need as justification, return-on-investment in real dollars. We choose to spend a ton of money on things that really are useless – I’m sure you can think of something that fits that description – but then cut NASA to subsistence levels and ask them, literally, for the Moon. It’s counterproductive, and it’s bizarre. So what’s next? In the near term I’ll be curious to see how NASA figures out what to cut and what to keep, of course. In a few months the White House will release its budget request for fiscal year 2013. We’ll see how that pans out, especially with the push for Mars exploration.

Related posts:

- Our Future in Space – panel at TAM 9
- Obama lays out a bold revised space policy
- Where will JWST’s money come from?
- The watershed moment for JWST