One of the problems NASA faces in complying with the dictates of the 2012 NASA Authorization Bill, especially where it concerns the shuttle derived heavy lift launch vehicle, is a lack of money to develop the rocket by the 2016 deadline.
The Obama budget request for NASA funds the launch vehicle and the Orion space craft at roughly $1.2 billion less than is in the authorization bill. Some observers have suggested that this indicates how less than serious the White House and NASA regards the desires of the Congress.
However, according to a story in Space News, congressional appropriators are looking at sources of money, both within NASA and elsewhere to come up with the extra money. There has been some sentiment to cut funding for Earth Science to help pay for launcher development. Also, the same appropriations committee that funds NASA also funds the Commerce and the Justice Departments, so presumably extra money would be found in those accounts.
The combined accounts amount to $65 billion so, in theory, the extra money should be easy to find, shaving a little here and a little there. However this exercise will be carried out in an atmosphere in which every part of the government is being scrutinized for budget cuts to help close an unprecedented trillion and a half dollar plus budget deficit. Also NASA, like the rest of the government, has not had a proper appropriations bill passed for the current fiscal year. Hence NASA in subsisting on 2010 levels, with the added burden of the so-called “Shelby language” that requires it to spend money on the officially canceled Constellation program.
With all of the competing interests involved in putting together a budget, it might be a minor miracle if NASA’s human space flight programs were to actually be fully funded. Indeed, considering that the process usually goes the other way, that NASA gets cut to fund other programs, it would be almost unprecedented.
The congressional appropriators seem to be showing more of a serious regard to the important of human space flight since the early days of Apollo. This has nothing to do with pork barrel politics, as some have opined. Rather, Congress seems determined that NASA get to the business of exploring space beyond low Earth orbit and the sooner, the better. The measure of the Congress’s regard for this imperative is how much money is appropriated. Funding speaks louder, after all, then all the rhetoric in the world.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.