NASA's Flat Budget Requires Hard Choices, And the choice is Asteroids

NASA announced Monday a $17.7 billion budget request for fiscal year 2013. The budget does not enable NASA to move forward with the planned 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions in collaboration with the European Space Agency.

The new plan envisions that one of the first deep space missions for astronauts will be to visit an asteroid. Image credit: NASA.

NASA announced Monday a $17.7 billion budget request for fiscal year 2013. While the budget supports a program of space exploration that will build on new technologies and proven capabilities to expand America's reach into the solar system, this budget does not enable NASA to move forward with the planned 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions in collaboration with the European Space Agency.

"What we are doing with our partners is not walking away at all," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "Everybody is seeing decreased funding. So we're trying to structure a reasonable strategy for robotic exploration."

NASA had already spent money on the development of the 2016 ExoMars mission, and he said hopefully this technology could be used in a future Mars mission that would take place sometime between 2018 and 2020.

Regarding the lack of new flagship missions in the budget, Bolden said: "Flagships are essential for this nation. We just could not do another flagship right now. It was not feasible in these fiscal times." Bolden said the focus now is on medium-class missions that will still generate scientific returns.

In this constrained fiscal environment, the NASA FY13 budget implements the space science and exploration program agreed to by President Obama and a bipartisan majority in Congress, laying the foundation for ground-breaking discoveries here on Earth and in deep space, including new destinations, such as an asteroid and Mars by 2035

The NASA budget includes $4 billion for space operations and $4 billion for exploration activities in the Human Exploration Operations mission directorate, including close-out of the Space Shuttle Program, and funding for the International Space Station, $4.9 billion for science, $669 million for space technology and $552 million for aeronautics research.

"This budget puts us on course to explore farther into space than ever before, revealing the unknown and fueling the nation's economy for years to come," Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said. "We are committed to ensuring that our astronauts are once again launched from U.S. soil on American-made spacecraft, and this budget provides the funds to make this a reality."

The budget supports NASA's continued work to develop the Space Launch System, a new heavy-lift rocket to carry astronauts to destinations such as an asteroid and Mars, and the Orion crew capsule in which they will travel.

The current timeline for the new Orion capsule, which is to replace the space shuttle, has the first "exploration test" occuring in 2014. This test will lauch the capsule, have it orbit Earth twice, and then land back on Earth. The first integrated non-crewed flight is projected for 2017. The first human-crewed flight of Orion should be in 2021.

NASA has prioritized funding for its partnership with the commercial space industry to facilitate crew and cargo transport to the station. The $830 million for this work in the FY13 budget advances progress towards a vibrant space industry that will create high-tech jobs to the U.S. economy, and reduce America's reliance on foreign systems.

The budget also enhances use of the International Space Station to improve life on Earth and help make the next great leaps in scientific discovery and exploration.

Space Technology work supported in the budget will drive advances in new high-payoff space technologies such as laser communications and zero-gravity propellant transfer, seeding innovation that will expand our capabilities in the skies and in space, supporting economic vitality, lowering the cost of other government and commercial space activities, and helping to create new jobs and expand opportunities for a skilled workforce.

NASA supports its commitment to enhancing aviation safety and airspace efficiency, and reducing the environmental impact of aviation by helping to accelerate the nation's transition to the Next Generation Air Transportation System through investments in revolutionary concepts for air vehicles and air traffic management.

NASA's science budget continues to support the development and testing of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the successor to Hubble Space Telescope, leading to its planned launch in 2018. Bolden is optimistic the JWST will revolutionize our understanding of the universe, as well as cause as to ask new questions. "Let's eat this pie that we have," said Bolden. "Let's nibble on the two flagship missions (JWST and Mars Science Laboratory, currently on its way to Mars) before we look to the next one."

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