According to a Monday story in Space News, outgoing Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland gave voice to an ongoing problem that NASA has faced for quite some time. Specifically, the space agency is not getting enough funding to conduct all of the programs that it has been mandated to execute. Mikulski, who is the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has vowed to do something about it. How much more money Mikulski can garner for NASA and even if she would be able to increase its budget higher than the president’s $18.5 billion request for FY 2016 is an open question.
The NASA budget problem has been discussed, at least in whispers, but any proposal like Mikulski’s to increase it significantly has collided into Washington budget politics. The federal budget deficit is still immense, so even adding a few billion or so a year to the space agency’s budget had proven to be outside the realm of possibility. It did not help that neither President Obama nor President George W. Bush, albeit for different reasons, were interested in spending the political capital to provide sufficient funding.
Hence, a number of political fights have broken out, caused by the budget scarcity at NASA. Mars is still the ultimate destination for American astronauts, 20 plus years from now, but where to go in the meantime is a subject of debate. Should Americans go to an asteroid or back to the moon? Thus far, the official policy is an asteroid though the budget situation has caused the mission to be reduced to visiting a boulder in low Earth orbit.
The other big budget fight concerns Earth science vs. space exploration. Many congressional Republicans have noted that the Obama administration has funded Earth science at the expense of space exploration and are now seeking to reverse that. Other questions concern how much to spend on space exploration technology and whether to use the heavy-lift Space Launch System or cancel it in favor of smaller, less capable commercial rockets.
What budget figure would be appropriate for NASA, considering all it has been tasked to do and what it might be doing if it had the money? SpaceX Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell put out a figure of $22-25 billion a year. Celebrity astrophysicist and TV personality Neil deGrasse Tyson suggested doubling the space agency’s budget, which would set it at $36 billion or so. Whatever the figure, such an initiative likely would have to await the pleasure of the next president of the United States.