Faced with reduced funding and an uncertain outlook, NASA's $18.7 billion fiscal 2012 budget prioritizes the Obama administration's major goals and objectives, focusing on maintaining the International Space Station, retiring the shuttle and ramping up efforts to spur development of commercial manned spacecraft.
The budget also reflects the administration's commitment to building a new heavy-lift rocket and a crew capsule that could be used for deep-space exploration.
But the budget follows the administration's proposal to freeze federal funding at 2010 levels for the next five years, resulting in a $276 million decrease for NASA compared to the agency's 2011 budget.
Until Congress weighs in with actual funding, it's not clear when a viable United States manned spacecraft will emerge to service the station or when eventual deep-space missions might occur.
In the meantime, with the shuttle's retirement looming after a final three missions, NASA will continue to rely on Russia to provide transportation to and from the space station aboard Soyuz spacecraft at about $55 million a seat.
"This budget requires us to live within our means so we can invest in our future," NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told reporters. "It maintains our strong commitment to human spaceflight and new technologies. It establishes critical priorities and invests in excellent science, aeronautics research and education programs that will help us win the future."
Because "these are tough fiscal times, tough choices had to be made," he said. "Our No. 1 priority is safely flying out the shuttle and maintaining the safety and well being of the American astronauts currently living and working in space."
NASA is working under a continuing resolution that requires the agency to operate at 2010 funding levels. The $19 billion fiscal 2011 budget remains in limbo, as does precise funding to begin ramping up work on commercial manned spacecraft, the new heavy lift launcher and the multipurpose crew vehicle NASA is planning for deep-space exploration.
The new budget funds the congressionally mandated Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle at roughly the same levels that were authorized in the 2011 budget: $1.8 billion for the rocket and $1 billion for the crew capsule.
Closer to home, NASA managers hope the private sector can design, build, and test commercial manned spacecraft for initial flights somewhere between 2014 and 2016 to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The 2012 budget includes $850 million to kick-start development.
"It's clearly a function of what funding's available," said Bill Gerstenmaier, chief of space operations at NASA headquarters. "But for planning purposes, we've been looking in the 2014, '15 or '16 time frame, somewhere in there for crew. But the proof of the pudding is when we actually start getting some concrete budgets and start getting some real plans and start to see some real proposals."
Space science would receive just over $5 billion in the 2012 budget, a slight increase over the yet-to-be-implemented 2011 budget, while space operations, which includes the shuttle and station programs, drops $1.16 billion to $4.3 billion in 2012. The reduction is due in large part to the shuttle's retirement.
All of those funding levels are frozen through 2016--projected spending in 2013 through 2016 is shown as "notional"--and until Congress gives its final approval, design details and target dates are nebulous.
"Any budget takes place in a context," said Elizabeth Robinson, NASA's chief financial officer. "Perhaps the context this year is a little more complicated than others but as always, it's a combination of internal and external factors. Both an internal and external factor is we still don't know what's happening to our funding levels in 2011. The agency is proceeding in all of its programs, but commitments to life cycle costs and launch dates are likely to be impacted by whatever we get in 2011."
In the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster, the Bush administration ordered NASA to finish the space station and retire the shuttle by the end of fiscal 2010. Using money freed up by the shuttle's retirement and the end of station assembly, NASA was told to develop a program to return astronauts to the moon for long-duration stays by the early 2020s.
NASA developed the Constellation program to meet those objectives and began designing low-Earth orbit and heavy lift versions of a new shuttle-derived rocket known as Ares and a new crew capsule, called Orion, that could fly to the station and, eventually, deep-space targets.
The Obama administration, deciding it was not affordable. Instead, the administration favored a "flexible path" approach laid out by a blue-ribbon panel that called for relying on the private sector to ferry astronauts to and from the station.
NASA was to focus on developing a new architecture for visiting a variety of deep-space targets including nearby asteroids and, eventually, Mars. After lengthy discussions between NASA, Congress, and the White House, the agency opted to use a variant of the Constellation program's Orion capsule as a reference design for a deep-space capsule and a less powerful version of the Ares V moon rocket.
In legislation passed last year, NASA was told to build the new rocket by 2016. The agency responded in January that it would not be able to deliver given the expected funding. And that was before the proposed spending freeze.
"In this time of necessary budget cuts, NASA does well compared to most other agencies," Sen. Bill Nelson, D-FL, the architect of the heavy-lifter legislation, said in a statement. "But the president's budget does not follow the bipartisan NASA law Congress passed late last year. The Congress will assert its priorities in the next six months."
Given the budget uncertainty in Washington, it's not clear when any of these new systems might fly. But Bolden said he's convinced NASA and its private-sector partners will deliver in the end.
"Trust me. I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think it could work," he said.