To help NASA set its space-science priorities, the National Research Council conducts surveys of researchers in particular fields. The results are detailed recommendations for the U.S. space agency to follow in robotic exploration for the coming decade. Precursor missions to return samples from Mars are the top “decadal survey” goal of planetary scientists, for example. Alas, there is no formal decadal survey process for broader issues of U.S. space policy. The Mars goal set by the planetary scientists already has been deferred under budget pressure, and the prospects for the rest of the U.S. space program in the coming year are uncertain at best, as the government uses separation-of-powers procedures drafted in the 18th century to solve 21st-century problems.

William Gerstenmaier, NASA's human-spaceflight chief, has warned that the U.S. is at a “tipping point” in space exploration, and could be on the verge of a “retreat from space” (AW&ST July 16, p. 50). A clearer idea of which way NASA tips will come when the dust clears from the “fiscal cliff” deliberations. Whether at the top or the bottom of the precipice, NASA is highly vulnerable to budget cutting. Sequestration was set to lop $1.5 billion from the agency's nominal $17.7 billion budget for fiscal 2013. And even without sequestration, a down-squeeze on space spending seems inevitable given the weak economy and the swarm of interests vying desperately for borrowed federal cash.

Within that crunch, a couple of U.S. space priorities seem fairly safe—the International Space Station (ISS) and the James Webb Space Telescope. After some costly technical challenges, the Webb appears to be on track for a launch in 2018, and Congress and the White House have agreed that preparations should continue. The same is true of the ISS, which is slowly making the transition to utilization as a unique laboratory in space after a long and painful assembly period (AW&ST Dec. 24, p. 17). Getting to the ISS is another story, and that is where some key decisions must be made.

NASA has made clear that it will need $850 million a year to support development of the commercial crew vehicles it needs to transport crews to the ISS and perhaps to increase the rotating population there from six to seven. At that pace, commercial flights could begin in 2017. Otherwise the projects run by Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp. and SpaceX will bog down, and the first flight will slip even closer to the 2020 cutoff date for station funding.

Be very surprised if NASA's fiscal 2014 budget request doesn't include at least that much for commercial crew vehicles, given past congressional reluctance to back commercial crew to the requested extent. But also keep an eye on language from the appropriations committees designed to chop at least one of the three companies from federal funding. Some lawmakers on the purse-string panels believe NASA can't afford the competition, while the agency argues it can save money in the long run by backing competing suppliers now.

If Congress adopts what appears to be a penny-wise, pound-foolish approach, SpaceX is probably in the best position to continue. Its Dragon capsule already has delivered two loads of cargo to the ISS (photo) and returned scientific samples to water landings, and the company has started human-rating the spacecraft to carry space station crews (AW&ST Dec. 17, p. 31). Sierra Nevada says it has solid private backing, and already has the smallest share of federal support, while Boeing seems lukewarm on the whole commercial-crew idea and may drop out if the federal spigot dries up.

Human spaceflight does not have as well-defined a group of advocates as robotic space science, and the goal-setting process is trickier. The NASA Reauthorization Act of 2010 reflects a compromise between the White House and Congress over the Obama administration's desire to turn all U.S. human spaceflight over to the private sector. Instead, NASA is also funding development of a government-owned heavy-lift rocket—the Space Launch System (SLS)—and the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle to take human explorers beyond low Earth orbit. But the agency comes up for reauthorization again in the new Congress that convenes in January, and there are hints in the ongoing power struggle between Administrator Charlie Bolden and his deputy, Lori Garver, that the White House may try another push to end government development of the SLS in favor of commercial crew funding. Bolden is seen as a backer of the traditional approach, and there have been fairly transparent press leaks from within the agency that the White House—or at least Garver—wants to get rid of him. Watch the budget request for the outcome on that one too.