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Discontent over 2014 NASA Space Launch System, commercial crew funding

Space Launch System takes off
Space Launch System takes offNASA

The $17.65 billion appropriations for NASA in the 2014 omnibus spending bill have been generally hailed as a “big win” for the space agency and its high profile programs. There are, however, some dissenting opinions.

Eric Berger, in a January 15, 2014 post in the Houston Chronicle, suggested that the funding level for the heavy lift Space Launch System is below what Congress said was needed.

“In that bill Congress called, for example, in fiscal year 2013 to fund the SLS rocket at a level of $2.64 billion. It received significantly less than that in fiscal year 2013. And one would presume funding along those lines, or more, would be needed as the SLS rocket program was building up toward a 2017 test launch. So what did the government give NASA in the new budget for fiscal year 2014? $1.6 billion.”

Keith Cowing, writing at NASA Watch, complained that the commercial crew funding, that spends money on government funded, commercially operated space craft, has fallen short as well.

He notes that “that the $696M in this budget is $125 million less than the $821M White House asked for in FY 2014. When you take into consideration that of this $696M, $171M is not being given to NASA anytime soon (unless they produce the ISS report that Congress requires), then NASA will only have $525M in FY 2014. $525M is $296M less than the White House asked for i.e. a one-third cut in what was requested.

“In FY 2014 budget hearings last year Charlie Bolden was clear that if he did not get the $821M that the White House asked for in FY 2014 then having a commercial crew capability in 2017 was not going to happen. In addition, the NASA OIG noted in a report that previous cuts in commercial crew budgets have already forced a slip from 2015 to 2017. One would assume that future budget shortfalls would have a similar consequence.”

The SLS is scheduled for its first test launch in 2017. Commercial crew operations are also scheduled for that year. Will the budget shortfalls cause schedule slippages in both programs? Sometimes, it should be noted, that demands for a certain amount of spending are really bargaining positions, with the eventually agreed upon level the real amount that is needed to keep a program on track. On the other hand, the history of the civil space program is replete with examples with expensive, high level programs going off track and slipping schedules because of budget shortfalls. Which it will be in these two cases remains to be seen.