By John Rhea
WASHINGTON- The big news at NASA is the space agency's reversal of its budget declines of the past seven years. The Clinton Administration's request for NASA is $14.1 billion for fiscal year 2001, which begins Oct. 1. That's up $435 million from this year's spending level of $13.6 billion.
That increase is only the beginning, according to NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin. He projects steady growth over the next five years to $16 billion in 2005.
Of greater significance to the electronics industry, however, is what this additional money buys - and what it does not buy. Labor-intensive mission support operations are projected to stay on a plateau of 19 percent of the agency's budget. Manned space flight operations, meanwhile, which a decade ago ate up 48 percent, are now down to 40 percent and expected to decline steadily to 30 percent of total agency spending by 2005.
This frees up money for two other hardware-related areas that represented less than a third of NASA's budget a decade ago and now is planned to reach more than half in the next five years.
Aerospace technology (with heavy emphasis on information technology, nanotechnology, and biotechnology) is due to nearly double its share of the NASA budget over the next five years from 8 percent to 15 percent. The total for science programs, which are major users of electronic instrumentation, is expected to edge up from 33 percent to 36 percent.
An even bigger potential bonanza for the avionics industry is buried in a $235 million line item to make a down payment on the development of a second-generation reusable launch vehicle (RLV).
The difficulties that the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works in Palmdale, Calif., has experienced with its X-33 experimental vehicle and planned VentureStar commercial reusable vehicle (mostly with the fuel tanks and engines) have put the program three years behind schedule and raised doubts about its future.
After about $900 million in government investment in that effort, most of it by NASA, the space agency is poised to make a fresh start at finding a vehicle to replace or at least complement the Space Shuttle.
The new budget anticipates investing $6 billion in space transportation over the next five years to develop more cost-effective systems. An estimated $4.4 billion of that will be earmarked for the second-generation RLV. Under what NASA officials call a "new initiative," the program is to support three companies to develop manned RLVs over the next five years with operational status to be achieved about three years later.
The net result would be to place responsibility for total flight operations in the hands of the contractors - in effect eventually easing NASA out of the space launch business. NASA leaders have long sought a successor to the shuttle because of its excessive operational costs; the General Accounting Office estimates shuttle costs at $16,000 per pound launched to low Earth orbit. The goal for the next generation RLV is somewhere below $1,000 per pound.
Among the expected competitors for the second-generation RLV are the Lockheed Skunk Works and at least two other airframe contractors: the Boeing Phantom Works in Huntington Beach, Calif., and Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va. Teaming arrangements should begin soon in anticipation of a go-ahead by NASA and issuance of a request for proposals.
Driving this turnaround of the NASA budget after last year's series of spacecraft failures and shuttle launch problems is increased congressional support. Forces within the Clinton Administration were poised to slash the agency's budget even deeper this year, but Goldin was able to make the case that NASA had already taken substantial cuts under his "faster, cheaper, better" doctrine. In addition, the booming national economy offered an opportunity to invest in the future.
Recent improvements in the International Space Station program, based at Cape Canaveral, Fla., contributed to the increased Congressional support, says Dan Brandenstein, vice president in charge of the consolidated space operations contract (CSOC) program at Lockheed Martin Space Operations Division in Houston - and president of the National Space Society.
Brandenstein maintains that "faster, cheaper, better" is still NASA's approach, noting that his own company's CSOC was focused from the beginning on reducing costs. Now, he says, Congress is more willing to reinvest the cost savings.
At his budget briefing on Feb. 7 Goldin quipped about the administration and Congressional treatment of his request, "Look at the smile on my face."
Brandenstein, who heads the 22,000-member Washington-based space advocacy organization, echoed that sentiment, saying he was "50 percent happier" with this year's NASA budget request than last year's.