Monday, February 1, 2010

Carnival of Space #139 and the FY2011 NASA budget

The 139th edition of the Carnival of Space, a weekly series highlighting the best in the astronomy and space blogosphere, is now online at Mama Joules, a kid-friendly astronomy blog.  You know the drill.  Some great posts on orbital terminology, the premature reports of Spirit's demise, and early reports of the President's NASA budget for FY2011.  Gotta love the white board drawings illustrating the concepts of "gravity" and "flyby".

Speaking of the President's NASA budget for FY2011 (10/2010-10/2011), it was released today and a number of my fellow bloggers have commented about it including Van Kane and Phil Plait.  For information from the horse's mouth, check out this presentation from the NASA website, the NASA FY2011 factsheet from the Office of Management and Budget website, and the more detailed budget breakdown on the OMB site (though its breakdown is less helpful, IMHO).  For me this budget is a mix of good and bad.  Let me be clear there is a lot of good in this budget, though of course that assumes you trust the out-year budget estimates...  I like the precursor mission concept.  This could put some of the Mars, Moon, and near-Earth asteroid exploration from the Science Mission Directorate to the Exploration one, increasing the amount of money available for other targets.  The budget increases for space technology and extends the lifetime and capabilities of the International Space Station, which I support.  While the space station wasn't very popular when it was started, now that it is near complete, the ISS represents an important asset in space and we should use it for as long as we possibly can.  The ISS should be in use until we are basically holding the thing together with duct tape, a la the Mir space station.  The earlier plan to abandon the station in 2016 would have turned the ISS into an even larger waste of money.

Finally, the planetary science budget, which controls how much money all of your favorite missions in progress (Cassini, New Horizons, MER, MRO) and in construction (EJSM) get, increases by $140 million in FY2011 compared to this year's budget.  Looking at the out-year projections, the budget could increase by a $164 million between FY2011 and FY2015, but again, out-year projections are generally just guesstimates of future budgets, and should be taken with a GIANT grain of salt.  However, the NASA presentation does make it clear that they intend to use this money to restart Plutonium-238 production, essential for outer-planet missions, as well as continue operations for existing spacecraft like Cassini and funding for the Europa/Jupiter System Mission (EJSM).

Now, for the bad...  The budget cancels the Constellation program which include new heavy-lift rockets like Ares and crew vehicles like Orion to replace the shuttle.  This program was intended to support future manned missions to the Moon and Mars with a focus on long-term habitability as opposed to the Apollo-like short trips.  This program will be replaced by a combination of funding for commercial ferries to the space station and technology development to get the technologies in place to go to the Moon.  The good news is that this would shorten the time NASA would need to rely on Russia to get to the International Space Station following the Space Shuttle retirement from 5 years to 2-3 years with some cost savings.  However, I am concerned that it will be more difficult to maintain the out-year budget increases for science if federalized manned spaceflight is cut, as NASA could lose some its protection from powerful senators from Texas and Florida.  Then again, Constellation, with its payoff not coming for another five years, has always been a budgetary target, and it really comes as no surprise that Obama would cut it.  After all, George W. Bush proposed it, and since he was evil, Constellation must be a bad idea... Wait, that makes no sense...

In conclusion, I like the budget increases we are seeing for the planetary science budget, particularly the restart of the plutonium-238 production (though that was also proposed last year by the President, but got shot down by Congress).  However, I believe that the cancellation of Constellation and the move from a federal manned spaceflight program to a privatized one will make the projected out-year budget increases more politically vulnerable.

Link: Carnival of Space #137 []
Link: NASA Fiscal Year 2011 Budget Estimates []


  1. Bush proposed returning to the Moon and getting to Mars without funding it. Constellation is entirely NASA's idea about how to do it. Without funds. Is it surprising it's kludgey and late? No.

    There will be a huge hole in heavy lift. Private industry will never make anything like an Ares V.

    I'm pretty ambivalent about Ares-1. The Ares-1X launch was enough of a farce that it probably harmed the opinions of those paying attention.

  2. That was only because it was difficult to fund both Constellation AND the Shuttles AT the same time without politically difficult budget increases at the same time we are fighting two wars. That's a big reason the Shuttles are being retired, to provide funding for Constellation and the development of Orion and Ares.

    As far as the need for a heavy lift vehicle like Ares V, you just hit another issue. Ares V wasn't just for manned spaceflight with Orion, but for large planetary missions as well...