Spaceflight Now: Breaking News

Station, science squeezed in 2002 NASA budget proposal

Posted: March 1, 2001

An illustration of the completed international space station. But this artwork might require some erasing if proposed budget cuts are enacted to cancel some modules. Photo: NASA
President George W. Bush's 2002 budget proposal, released Wednesday, provides essentially no increase in funding for NASA while mandating serious reforms to the International Space Station and the cancellation of two planetary science missions.

The initial budget proposal for fiscal year 2002, which begins October 1 of this year, requests $14.5 billion for NASA, compared to $14.3 billion in 2001. That increase -- less than 1.5% -- is less than half of the average 4% increase for all government programs. When inflation is factored into account, NASA's 2002 budget would be no greater, and possibly slightly less, than its 2001 budget.

More detailed data on the 2002 budget proposal, including how the $14.5 billion will be divided among NASA's various programs, will not be available until early April when the Bush Administration releases expanded budget documentation. However, the budget documents released Wednesday did mention increases for some programs, including the International Space Station and the Space Launch Initiative, as well as a "more robust" Mars exploration program.

Any increase in ISS funding will come with strings attached, however. In the wake of reports that the American portion of the project may be as much as $4 billion over budget, the budget document hinted that major changes in the program might be in the works, including the possibility of terminating the assembly of the station early.

"To address this unprecedented cost growth and ensure that the program remains within the five-year budget plan, the President's 2002 Budget will include important decisions regarding the funding and management of the program," the budget document stated.

"The U.S. core will be complete once the Space Station is ready to accept major international hardware elements," the report added. This would effectively cut off assembly of the American components of the station in late 2003 when station assembly flight 10A adds Node 2, a module which Japanese and European lab modules will dock to. The budget specifically mentioned the Propulsion Module, Habitation Module, and Crew Return Vehicle as projects which funding would be directed away from to cover cost overruns elsewhere in ISS.

The budget proposal also called for strong changes in the management of the ISS project. "NASA will undertake reforms and develop a plan to ensure that future Space Station costs remain within the President's 2002 Budget plan," the report noted. Those reforms include an external review of cost estimates, transfer of ISS program management at least temporarily from the Johnson Space Center to NASA Headquarters, longer-term changes in procurement policies, and the possibility of a non-governmental organization overseeing station research.

ISS was not the only NASA program targeted in the budget. The budget calls for the cancellation of two planetary science missions under study:

  • Pluto-Kuiper Express (PKE), a mission to fly by Pluto and a Kuiper Belt object
  • Solar Probe, a mission to study the sun from a distance of only a few million kilometers.

Both missions, part of the larger "Fire and Ice" program that includes the Europa Orbiter mission, had seen their cost estimates grow significantly in the last year.

An artist's concept of the Pluto-Kuiper Express spacecraft. Photo: NASA/JPL
PKE had been in trouble for some time, and in September of last year NASA issued a stop-work order to halt further work on the project. That decision caused protests in the planetary science community, which in turn led NASA to announce in December it would release an announcement of opportunity (AO) early this year to solicit proposals for a lower-cost replacement mission from outside the agency. However, NASA officials said late Wednesday that they were canceling the AO, and would be notifying Congress to that effect.

The 2002 budget proposal will contain funding for "key propulsion technology investments" that could be used to support any potential future missions to Pluto before 2020.

Other portions of the agency will also see cuts. The budget summary said that while the Earth Observing System program will see a 5% increase in 2002, the agency would be "discontinuing low-priority remote sensing satellite and environmental application projects." In addition, lower priority aeronautics programs and "under-performing" information technology projects would be discontinued under the budget proposal.

The budget summary put a particular emphasis on commercialization and privatization initiatives, potentially as a way to drive down ISS and other mission costs down the road. In addition to a 64% increase in the budget for the Space Launch Initiative -- a program to develop technologies that will eventually lead to next-generation reusable launch vehicle -- the Bush Administration is calling reforms that would include ensuring competition for ISS cargo and crew delivery services by the middle of the decade and studying further privatization efforts for the space shuttle program.

While Wednesday's proposal is the first word on the 2002 budget, it is far from the last. Congress will take up the budget proposal this spring, and will likely focus much of their attention on the growing costs of the space station. A final version of the budget is not expected to be passed by both houses of Congress before September.