For those who haven’t been following it, NASA is currently caught in a rather bizarre funding bind. With only two and half months to go in the FY2013 year which ends September 30th, the agency still does not know what it is allowed to spend in this year because differing House and Senate Committees have not been able to reach an agreement after a NASA operating plan was rejected in May. If it is not resolved a number of programs will have to pull in the reins until the fiscal year begins, and the dysfunctional cycle begins again.
That process has already started. At the moment, House and Senate committees are reaching very different conclusions regarding FY 2014 funding levels, with the Senate poised to approve and $18 billion budget and the House instead wanting to keep funding basically where it is.
As has been the case for the last four budget cycles, battle lines are being drawn over Commercial Crew. The Senate version would fund the program at $800 million, reasonably close to the $821 requested by the Administration, and what NASA Administrator Charles Bolden stated was absolutely necessary to achieve a first flight by 2017, while the House Appropriations Committee which would place funding at $500 million, which is $200 million less than the number provided by the House Science Committee Authorization.
The one constant is the desire to keep money flowing to the Space Launch System and the Orion Capsule, although one of its biggest supporters Al. Senator Richard Shelby says he will vote against the Senate funding level because the overall amount is too high. Given that SLS/ Orion remains protected in every version under consideration, it is a rather easy stand to take.
In a preview of coming attractions, language in the House Committee Appropriations Committee expressed some angst regarding the fact that NASA is nowhere near pursuing development of the 130 metric ton version of SLS
“The Committee remains committed to the development of the full 130 metric ton SLS capability, which is necessary for NASA to achieve its most challenging beyond Earth orbit (BEO) exploration goals. In order to achieve this capability, NASA has laid out a development plan to evolve from a 70 metric ton capability to 130 metric tons, and the Committee has supported this plan on the condition that NASA would not allow its near-term efforts to crowd out investments in upper stage development and the advanced booster system needed to complete the full evolution. Unfortunately, NASA continues to defer or descope activities needed to advance substantially beyond the initial SLS configuration with the interim cryogenic propulsion stage. As a result, the program would likely reach a plateau with the achievement of the 70 metric ton capability.”
For critics who have been convinced from the program’s outset that there is no viable future within the budget limits envisioned, the steadily slipping transition from the 70 ton to the 130 ton version seems increasingly likely to be the point of no return.