Budget Chaos at NASA After Mixed Signals From Congress

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

Conflicting guidance from Congress could result in NASA's spending $500 million on a rocket program that is due to be canceled.

Last week, the NASA inspector general reported that the problem stems from new orders to the agency to replace the Ares I rocket program with one that incorporates many of the elements in the Constellation program begun under President George W. Bush. The changes, part of a law that went into effect in October, were seen as a compromise that mollified fans of the human spaceflight program while including reforms that the White House had sought. But since lawmakers have delayed passing a 2011 budget, the report says, the agency must continue to pay for the original rocket program, leading to considerable waste.

The problem is that the so-called continuing resolution, which keeps spending at 2010 levels at least until March, also requires agencies to continue virtually all programs. While 2010 appropriation documents instructed NASA to continue with the Constellation effort, the October law, known as a reauthorization, calls it instead a "Space Launch System" (SLS) although the requirements are similar.

Last week, the plot thickened further: NASA said that the SLS, as laid out by Congress in the reauthorization, is too expensive and would take too long to complete.

That news came in a report from NASA to Congress required by the October law, which lays out NASA's priorities. That law had specified that the first flight of the SLS should occur in 2016. "A first flight this early does not realistically appear to be possible based on our current cost estimates ... and given the levels proposed in the Authorization Act," NASA said in the report.

That conclusion has infuriated a number of powerful lawmakers. "NASA throws their hands in the air and claims it is unaffordable without providing a single piece of evidence that brings truth to their conclusions," said Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), ranking member of the spending panel that oversees NASA and a patron of the large NASA facilities in his state . "The language is clear--NASA has evaluated 2000 vehicle concepts over the past decade, and the rocket scientists and engineers have picked the design and are ready to proceed. Instead, NASA continues to further delay."

Meanwhile, scientists at the agency who are working on the Constellation effort feel frustrated, says physicist Sheila Bailey of the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Even Bailey's work on advanced solar cells, which is funded by the Air Force, is affected by the uncertainty. "If you don't know how much you're getting next year, you don't know what program to do, or how to prioritize," Bailey adds. "I don't think I've ever seen so much confusion in terms of projects, and priorities, and where we're heading."

Posted in Space, Funding