NASA is trying to cover all of its bases for fiscal 2015 with a $17.5 billion stay-the-course budget request that would maintain pace on all of the agency's major priorities.

The James Webb Space Telescope, Space Launch System and Orion crew capsule, and International Space Station—extended until 2024, with commercial crew access to it—are funded adequately. NASA remains oversubscribed, so it relies on the White House's proposed government-wide $56 billion wish list for another $886 million in nice-to-haves, including “more robust” competition in commercial crew vehicle development between at least two providers. It also rewards congressional backers with some extra work for their constituents, while threatening to ground the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (Sofia) unless Europe antes up some extra operating funds.

“This budget does enable us to keep doing what we've been doing,” says Administrator Charles Bolden.

Officials say operating costs for Sofia, a large IR telescope mounted in an augmented Boeing 747, are second only to the Hubble Space Telescope. In a tradeoff against other science programs deemed more productive, NASA plans to put the flying observatory in storage as of fiscal 2015 unless its partner—German Aerospace Center DLR—or perhaps the European Space Agency, can add to funding for continued operations.

Agency budgeters have punted other issues to Congress under the White House's Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative, an all-or-nothing proposal that would add specific funds to specific programs across the mission directorates. For example, NASA wants $848 million to seed development of commercial crew vehicles for transport to the ISS. Companies have submitted bids that include flight tests to the ISS, but it is not clear whether that funding would support the operational competition with at least two suppliers that NASA wants as a way to hold down costs. If Congress approves the whole $56 billion wish list, it would add another $250 million to NASA's commercial crew funding, which NASA says would increase the odds for continued competition by making up some ground lost in past appropriations.

Congressional leaders like Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who oversees NASA appropriations in the House, have questioned whether the Treasury can afford the two-competitor approach, and NASA managers say they are not banking on the wish-list funding for any of the programs that would benefit.

The fiscal 2015 request seeks $2.8 billion total for the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS), Orion crew capsule and the necessary infrastructure at Kennedy Space Center to get the stack off the ground. That is a decrease of about $300 million from the fiscal 2014 level, but officials say the big rocket is on track for first flight—with an instrumented Orion prototype—by the end of 2017. The first flight with a crew is still set for 2021-22, depending on whether problems arise in integrating the two vehicles, the whole stack and/or the ground support equipment, say agency officials who spoke on background.

Still to be determined is whether the SLS—down for $1.3 billion in the new budget request—will have an early mission in 2025 to take a crew to visit at least a piece of an asteroid repositioned in distant lunar retrograde orbit (see page 20). The Asteroid Redirect Mission has received scant support on Capitol Hill, and its fiscal 2015 funding request of almost $160 million covers a mixture of tasks—high-power solar electric propulsion, target detection and tracking and the like—that can be applied to different goals, including non-asteroid operations in lunar space and planetary protection from undetected near-Earth objects.

The SLS development is managed at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. Native son Sen. Richard Shelby, ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the panel chair, will find their constituents on the NASA payroll well accommodated in the new budget request. While Shelby receives continued support for the SLS, Mikulski will see the $8 billion Webb telescope that is managed at the Goddard Space Flight Center in her state remain on track for a launch in 2018.

NASA seeks $645 million for the Webb in fiscal 2015, as planned, since the program was reset after cost and schedule overruns. It also has funding for preformulation work at Goddard on the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (Wfirst), including technology development for detectors and a coronagraph (see illustration). The top-priority astrophysics mission would will use a surplus 2.4-meter telescope donated to NASA by the National Reconnaissance Office to study the effects of dark energy on the observable universe, and to scan the galactic core for evidence of extra-solar planetary systems.

Some work on Wfirst will be conducted at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., which also would receive some of the $15 million proposed for pre-formulation work on a $1 billion-class mission that would fly through the recently discovered water geysers spewing into space from the South Pole of Europa (AW&ST Feb. 17, p. 37).

Even so, the $1.3 billion for planetary science, including funds for a Curiosity-heritage Mars rover for launch in 2020, failed to satisfy the lawmaker whose district includes JPL.

“While I am pleased to see the budget continues to provide funding for the Mars Exploration Program, in particular the Mars 2020 mission, and recognizes the importance of a future mission to Europa, a far greater investment will be necessary to ensure America's preeminence in planetary science,” says Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.).

Overall the NASA budget request represents a decrease of $185 million from the NASA spending for fiscal 2014 enacted in January. But given the cuts that followed the federal funding sequestration in fiscal 2013, it marks a $600 million increase over that fiscal year. With a 1% inflation allowance, NASA managers consider the budget an increase for their agency, even though it will require a reduction of, in funding terms, 300 full-time employees. They hope to accommodate those cuts by reassigning civil servants, and do not expect to face more workforce reductions in future years.