Like any federal agency, NASA is subject to the whims of Congress, which funds its activities. And following the passage of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 on 29 September, the agency’s priorities have been reshaped.
“Change is never easy,” said Lori Garver, NASA Deputy Administrator, at a press conference 30 September. She added that the bill’s passage suggests “a great sign that NASA is important to the nation’s future.”
The major winners are the Orion spacecraft, a capsule capable of carrying 4 to 6 astronauts into orbit, and the Ares I rocket, the launch vehicle that Orion would sit atop. Both are currently under development as part of the Bush-era Constellation project to send manned missions to the moon and Mars. In February 2010, President Obama announced a proposal to cancel the program, a move that was criticized by members of Congress and former astronaut Neil Armstrong.
Rather than cancel either project, the Authorization Act invests nearly $4 billion in a multi-purpose crew vehicle and nearly $7 billion in a launch vehicle over three years. It includes language to ensure NASA utilizes “existing contracts, investments, workforce, industrial base, and capabilities from the Space Shuttle and Orion and Ares 1 projects.”
As well, the bill includes provisions for an additional Space Shuttle launch in mid-2011, before the fleet is permanently retired. This final mission, carried out by the Atlantis Shuttle, would ferry parts and cargo to the International Space Station and cost $500 million.
Prior to the bill’s passage, Rep. Bart Gordon criticized this addition, saying in a statement that “without clarifying where the funds will come from” the decision would “all but ensur[e] that other important NASA programs will be cannibalized.” The statement raised fears that science funding could be affected.
But while lawmakers placed priority on the extra shuttle mission at the cost of lower-priority areas, none of those areas included science research, says Garver.
“There’s not a diagram of where they got the money,” she says but emphasized that science was not cut in the bill at the president’s request.
In fact, science research received a boost, with a moderate increase of around $250 million in funding each year through 2013. The breakdown is as follows over the three years: nearly $6 billion for earth science, $4.6 billion for planetary science, $3.2 billion for astrophysics, and nearly $2 billion for heliophysics. As well, there are provisions of nearly $2 billion for aeronautics technology research.
Finally, private spaceflight companies received funding through the Authorization Act, to the tune of $1.6 billion over three years, a figure short of the Administration’s call for $6 billion over five years back in February.
Though Garver also thanked NASA employees for their time during the anxious deliberations, the bill passed just days prior to a massive layoff of 1200 Shuttle workers on 1 October, in anticipation of the program ending.
Previously: House approves NASA Reauthorization Act 2010