Image: Charles Bolden
Bill Ingalls / NASA
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden responds to a reporter's question during an overview briefing on the budget proposal for fiscal year 2012 on Monday at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
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updated 2/14/2011 4:15:09 PM ET 2011-02-14T21:15:09

The Obama administration has announced its 2012 budget request, which if approved would freeze spending for NASA and other federal agencies at 2010 levels for the next fiscal year.

The 2012 budget request allocates $18.7 billion for NASA, the same amount the agency received in 2010. That's about $300 million less than NASA was alloted in the president's 2011 budget request.

"The times today are very difficult fiscally, and we're going to live within a budget," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said at a press conference Monday. "What we do has to be affordable, sustainable, and it has to make sense."

The move is part of an overall five-year freeze on non-security discretionary spending that the White House is proposing.

"The fiscal realities we face require hard choices," President Barack Obama wrote in his statement on the new budget. "A decade of deficits, compounded by the effects of the recession and the steps we had to take to break it, as well as the chronic failure to confront difficult decisions, has put us on an unsustainable course. That's why my budget lays out a path for how we can pay down these debts and free the American economy from their burden."

The new budget request applies to the 2012 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, 2011. This preliminary proposal, however, is likely to be modified by Congress.

Stuck in limbo
The announcement comes at a time when a federal budget for 2011 has yet to be passed. The government, including NASA, is currently operating under a stopgap measure called a continuing resolution, which is in force while lawmakers try to agree on a federal budget.

The current continuing resolution is set to expire on March 4. Lawmakers are preparing another continuing resolution that would tide the government over until September.

The House Appropriations Committee aims to enact big spending cuts that would reduce NASA's proposed $19 billion budget for 2011 by $578 million as part of a wider plan to trim $100 billion from the national budget, according to Space News. That would be a $303 million drop from the previous year.

Some space supporters were hoping the new 2012 budget request would increase NASA's budget and fund it at levels adequate to accomplish the goals set forth in the NASA Authorization Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by the president last October. That act recommended that the agency receive a yearly budget of $19.45 billion — $750 million more than the 2012 budget blueprint lays out.

"I don't know what will be in the budget, but I hope that it will be adequate to move forward exploration and commercial crew to LEO [low-Earth orbit] development," former astronaut Leroy Chiao said on Friday. Chiao served as member of the independent panel that Obama commissioned to review NASA's plans in 2009. "These are the two most important components of forward U.S. HSF [Human Space Flight] plans."

Budget breakdown
Although the new budget blueprint would roll back overall NASA spending, it does recommend boosts for some NASA sectors, including partnerships with commercial spaceflight companies.

The 2012 request allocates $850 million for NASA to partner with American companies to provide astronaut transportation to and from the International Space Station.

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The blueprint also suggests $1 billion for space technology research and developments that could pave the way for future space missions, and $5 billion for robotic solar system exploration, which would include new astronomical observatories and Earth observation programs.

The proposal recommends $2.8 billion for developing a heavy-lift rocket and crew capsule that would carry astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit. Such a vehicle is required for the trips to an asteroid and Mars that the Obama administration has pushed for.

Transitioning beyond shuttle
The space community is also looking to the 2012 budget request to offer guidance for a space agency that is trying to transition from the space shuttle era to a new future with a heightened focus on commercial spaceflight.

"The thing everyone wants is some clarity on what the next step is in building a next-generation launch vehicle for human spaceflight," said space policy expert Roger Handberg, a professor of political science at the University of Central Florida.

Handberg was doubtful that the new document would be able to accomplish that goal, though, because he said NASA remains embroiled in a debate over whether and how to abandon the Constellation program, a moon-oriented exploration vision for NASA set up under the George W. Bush administration. Obama has proposed targeting human missions to an asteroid and Mars instead.

"The battle over the carcass of Constellation will continue, which means paralysis for the agency," Handberg told Space.com in an e-mail last week.

"The irony is that finally an administration reaches office that is serious about commercial spaceflight but runs into the buzz saw of constituent jobs as the barrier to change," he wrote. "Merging the commercial and the NASA worlds together is the optimal solution, but that will not occur until the reality becomes clear that NASA must be allowed to rise above constituent jobs as the sole reason for having a human spaceflight program."

You can follow SPACE.com senior writer Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz.

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Explainer: Out-of-this-world destinations

  • NASA

    We are headed to Mars ... eventually. But first we need the rocket technology and human spaceflight savvy to get us there safely and efficiently. And the best way to do that is to visit places such as asteroids, our moon, a Martian moon and even no man's lands in space called "Lagrange points," NASA administrator Charles Bolden explained during the unveiling of the agency's revised vision for space exploration.

    The vision shifts focus away from a return to the moon as part of a steppingstone to Mars in favor of what experts call a "flexible path" to space exploration, pushing humans ever deeper into the cosmos.

    Click the "Next" label to check out six other potential destinations astronauts may visit in the years and decades to come en route to Mars.

    — John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Lessons to learn on the space station

    NASA

    The cooperation required to build and maintain the International Space Station will be a key to propelling humans on to Mars, according to Louis Friedman, co-founder of The Planetary Society. The society is a space advocacy organization that supports the flexible path to space exploration. In fact, the space station itself could be a training ground for Mars-bound astronauts.

    Astronauts can spend ever longer blocks of time on the station to gain experience in long-duration flights, for example. They could also practice extravehicular activities akin to those expected on a Mars mission, Friedman noted.

  • Lunar orbit, a test of new technology

    NASA

    Lunar orbit, too, is a familiar destination for human spaceflight, but a return to the familiar with new technology would allow astronauts to test the engineering of systems designed to go deeper into space, according to Friedman.

    A return to the moon is still in the cards on the flexible path, but going to lunar orbit first defers the cost of developing the landing and surface systems needed to get in and out of the lunar gravity well, according to experts.

    The famous "Earthrise" image shown here was made in 1968 during Apollo 8, the first human voyage to orbit the moon.

  • Stable no man's lands in space

    NASA / WMAP Science Team

    There are places in space where the gravitational pulls of Earth and the moon, or Earth and the sun, have a balancing effect on a third body in orbit. Those five locations, known as Lagrange points, could offer relatively stable parking spots for astronomical facilities such as space telescopes or satellites. Human spaceflights to these points would allow astronauts to service these instruments.

    In addition, space experts believe a trip to a Lagrange point could serve as a training mission for astronauts headed to points deeper in space, such as an asteroid. Nevertheless, reaching a Lagrange point would be more of a technical achievement than a scientific achievement, according to Friedman. "It is an empty spot in space," he said.

  • Visit an asteroid near you?

    Image: Paraffin candles
    Dan Durda  /  FIAAA

    The first stop astronauts may make in interplanetary space is one of the asteroids that cross near Earth's orbit. Scientists have a keen interest in the space rocks because of the threat that one of them could strike Earth with devastating consequences. An asteroid mission would allow scientists to better understand what makes the rocks tick, and thus how to best divert one that threatens to smack our planet.

    Humans have also never been to an asteroid, which would make such a visit an exciting first, noted Friedman. "Imagine how interesting it will be to see an astronaut step out of a spacecraft and down onto an asteroid and perform scientific experiments," he said. What's more, since asteroids have almost no gravity, an asteroid encounter would be like docking with the space station, which doesn't require a heavy-lift rocket for the return. That makes an asteroid a potentially less expensive destination than the surface of the moon.

  • Back to the moon?

    NASA via Getty Images

    The moon-Mars path of human space exploration originally envisioned the moon as a training ground for a mission to the Red Planet. While the flexible-path strategy broadens the training field, the moon remains a candidate destination, according to NASA.

    Several other nations also have the moon's surface in their sights, including Japan, India and China. Some experts fear the dedicated lunar programs of these nations will eventually leave the United States in the dust as it focuses on an ambiguous flexible path.

    Friedman, of The Planetary Society, said NASA should support the lunar programs of Japan, India and China as part of team building for an international Mars mission, but sees no reason for NASA to focus on the moon. "We've done that already and that was Apollo," he said.

  • Martian moon a final pit stop?

    NASA / JPL-Caltech / UA

    Before astronauts go all the way to Mars, there's reason to make a final stop at one of its moons, Phobos or Deimos. The two moons are less than 20 miles across at their widest, which means landing on them would be less expensive than the Red Planet itself.

    Friedman used to consider a mission to a Martian moon nonsensical - akin to going to the base camp of Mount Everest instead of going to the top of the mountain. "I've now turned myself around on that, because you do go to the base camp and you do actually conduct training activities there before you attempt the summit," he said.

    "By all means go there," he added. "Test out your rendezvous and docking at Mars, conduct your three-year, round-trip mission, maybe tele-operate some rovers of the surface (of Mars). That will all be interesting and then the next mission will finally go down to the surface."

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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