With Shelby at the Helm, SLS/Orion Win Big Again, Science Suffers


[Author’s Note: Innerspace.net has been on limited release for the last week as I have taken time off to welcome a personal payload into the world, Nola Kate Money, born on 4/18/2016.  As the designated landing zone also happened to be in New Delhi, India, some concessions were simply inevitable.]


Although it might not be officially designed as such, it appears that the price taxpayers must pay for the introduction of NASA’s Commercial Crew program in 2017, is the nearly unrestricted flow of money into the SLS and Orion programs in order to please powerful Alabama Senator Richard Shelby.

Last week, the Senate Commerce-Justice-Science Committee, which Shelby chairs, passed a $19.3 billion NASA appropriations bill, which is a slight increase over the FY2016 figure of $19.285 billion. The funding path to arrive at this figure is particularly tortuous, even for Washington, D.C. and if you are a glutton for punishment, check out this spacepolicyonline.com fact sheet for more details. The bottom line however, is that immediately after agreeing to budget caps last year, the Obama Administration went about the business of getting around them. NASA’s budget was simply a part of the maneuverings.

Regarding SLS, the CJS committee approved a $150 million increase over its equally generous numbers last year, bringing the figure to $2.15 billion. The relevant fact however, is that it is nearly $1 billion more than NASA requested, and it comes with a considerable opportunity cost. Even if you are not a particular fan of the program, within the context of developing SLS anyway, some of the increase makes sense, given that $300 million is going to develop the Exploration Upper Stage, which is needed to allow the rocket to do anything of use whatsoever.

Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage Credit: NASA

Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage
Credit: NASA

The upper stage which will be used on the first flight, Exploration Mission-1, or EM-1, is called the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) and is adapted from the upper stage used by the Delta IV. That flight, which really should have been called Test Mission 1, given that it is not exploring anything, will be uncrewed. Until recently, NASA had been planning to conduct the first crewed flight EM-2, (again, the use of the word “test” would have been refreshingly honest) using the ICPS as well, but was recently forced to issue a stop work order under language that accompanied last year’s appropriations bill.

The alternative is to advance the development of the Exploration Upper Stage, a component of the budget increase, but that course of action is not without controversy as well. With EM-2 not launching until sometime between 2021 and 2023, the last thing NASA wants to do is to delay the mission any further while it waits to conduct an un-crewed first test flight of SLS with the EUS.  That is what the Aerospace Safety Advisory Board would prefer, and it is presumably the standard which would apply to the Commercial Crew program, but it is not the case for SLS because it would effectively push the first crewed mission to EM-3 and who knows when. So, the EUS would appear to be getting the go ahead.

Part of  issue stems from the difference between the Administration’s priorities for SLS/Orion as reflected through the NASA FY2017 budget request, and that of Congress, which is showering money on SLS/Orion and Ground Systems to the tune of an additional $993 million. Viewed through that lens, SLS receives $840 million more than requested, Orion receives a $130 million increase to come to a whopping $1.3 billion for the year, and Ground Systems receives a $54.6 million bump as well. Almost comically, the only subsection of the “Exploration” account which covers SLS/Orion, is Exploration R&D, which sees an $81 million dollar cut.

That is at least consistent with the overall trend which has seen the entirely separate Space Technology budget, the agency’s seed corn if you will, languish year after year. While the level is the same as last year, at $686.5 million, it is some $140 million less than requested. Furthermore, reflecting perhaps the vestige of the long running unholy alliance between Richard Shelby and retiring Maryland Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski, $130 million of that amount is set aside for the Goddard Space Flight Center’s RESTORE-L satellite servicing mission concept. That is twice the requested amount.

With Commercial Crew and ISS remaining essentially neutral, it is Aeronautics and Space Science which bears the brunt. Once again, Planetary Science is hit the hardest. The NASA directorate which has been responsible some of the agency’s most high profile and wildly popular missions such as Dawn, Cassini and New Horizons (Ceres, Saturn and Pluto respectively) has been the regular victim of that alliance, which has seen the James Webb Space Telescope, Mikulski’s priority, overcome staggering budget overruns. With JWST’s budget finally flattening out, Planetary Science is still suffering, and this year the difference between the Administration and Congress is $162.8 million. It gets even worse when compared to the FY 2016 figure funding figure, where the gap grows to $275 million. While that might appear to be very bad news for a proposed Europa orbiter/lander mission, in reality the odds are good that once the House of Representatives weighs in, its CJS counterpart subcommittee, which headed by Representative John Culberson, will allocate additional funds to the Europa mission, which is a personal priority for the Texas Republican.

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4 Comments on "With Shelby at the Helm, SLS/Orion Win Big Again, Science Suffers"

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  1. Dave Huntsman says:

    The words “unholy alliance” apply to the Shelby/Mikulski/Culberson triad. Shelby will cut anything to feed MSFC and his Boeing/LockMart political contributors; Mikulski will go along with anything Shelby wants to fund space in Maryland; and Culbertson will go along with both to fund his one, single, pet mission. No matter the consequences to America’s long-term space future. We’re now 10 years into the very real decline in effective spending for NASA’s seed corn, the space technology R&D budget. I don’t think Americans realize the extent to which NASA is no longer a technology engine for the American economy as it once was, in spite of spending $19b/year; since so much of the effort is now steered, not to things that are in the nation’s interest, but instead to fund pet projects, those in certain states, and those going to political funders. Future space development for America, and its competitive leadership in space technology, simply is not an issue a single one of them cares about, at all.

    There’s also the possibility of change with elections. It happened with the last change of Presidents; it’s the only reason we have a competitive commercial crew program, at least. And no one predicted he would do that leading up to the 2008 election. But the powers of the huge status quo, starting with Boeing and LockMart, and their helpmates in government, are already being exercised with propaganda on multiple fronts that constantly pushes for ‘continuity’ (i.e, more and more money for SLS/Orion, et al, no matter where it’s taken from). See the past week’s Space News for yet another such ad, masquerading as an op-ed. Those who feel it is important to change course after the next election need to start getting their message out there, including during the conventions et al.

  2. There has been strong support in Congress for building a super heavy lift vehicle since 2005. And there’s no logical reason why Congress would suddenly want to change its mind.

    Even Elon Musk wants to build a super heavy lift vehicle. That’s because they’re very useful!


    • Nestos says:

      It will be useful for Elon Musk because he wants to colonize Mars, it won’t be useful for NASA because they won’t have the money to do anything with the awfully costly Senate Launch System.

  3. PK Sink says:

    Congrats on the successful launch of your personal payload. May she happily orbit your world for many years to come.

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