First, the good news. We are long past the days when the release of an Administration’s budget request for NASA was the most reliable guidepost to what the future of space exploration might bring. On the other hand, we are nowhere close to the point where it is no longer relevant either.
That being said, this year’s version of the the annual ritual took place on Tuesday, and even in comparison to recent years which have also been dominated by gridlock, the results, like the numbers themselves, are are almost impossible to determine.
Here is the short form, the NASA FY 2017 Budget Fact Sheet
And here is the Full Monty, the 710 page PDF with details. Except, as Marcia Smith describes in a post which must have been even more painful to summarize and write than it is to read, there is a $763 million discrepancy between the $19 billion NASA says it is requesting, and the $18.3 billion which is within the authority of Congress to appropriate. Furthermore, Congress has already served notice that it will be dismissing the President’s overall budget request without consideration anyway.
The bottom line for key human spaceflight programs is that as has been the case for several years now, NASA is officially requesting less for SLS and Orion than Congress wants those programs receive. This year the request is for $1.31 B and $1.12 B respectively, whereas Congress funded the heavy lift rocket and its spacecraft at $2 B and $1.27 B in FY 2016.
On the other side of the ledger is the Commercial Crew program, which from its inception until last year, was funded at a considerably lower level than was requested, a discrepancy which has extended American dependence on the Russia Soyuz for crew transport to ISS by at least two years. At $1.185 B, NASA’s Commercial Crew request for FY2017 is already slightly less than the $1.244 B which was appropriated in FY2016. With both SpaceX and Boeing working towards the first crewed test launches next year, it seems unlikely that any significant cuts in the program will be forthcoming, whereas SLS/Orion will likely receive additional funds NASA says it does not need.
Regarding SLS/Orion, one point did become increasingly clear on Tuesday. NASA’s Asteroid Retrieval Mission, or ARM, is on the verge of being amputated. During a press conference call to discuss the budget, NASA Chief Financial Officer David Radzanowski revealed that the notional launch date for a solar electric mission to go retrieve the tiny asteroid being targeted has likely slipped from 2020 to 2023.
As a result, any Orion flight to visit the recovered space rock might not take place until the late 2020’s. An Ars Technica article quotes a former senior NASA official as saying “Nobody believes in the ARM mission” and an unnamed industry source as saying:
“Oh come on, these poor guys are just trying to get through one more budget release with a shred of dignity intact knowing it’s all in the crapper next year.”