Space policy’s coast phase

NASA has used its budget requests in recent years to announce new programs and even wholesale changes in policy.

Three years ago, its budget request unveiled what became known as the Asteroid Redirect Mission, a program that now involves grabbing a boulder from a near Earth asteroid and bringing it back to lunar orbit.

Three years before that, NASA’s budget request was the administration’s way of revealing its plans to cancel the Constellation program and end efforts to return humans to the moon.

It’s unlikely NASA’s fiscal year 2017 budget request, due out Feb. 9, will follow in those footsteps. That doesn’t reflect a lack of ambitions at the space agency so much as political realities. This budget request will be the last by the Obama administration, and likely represent more of a “closing argument” of existing policies and programs rather than a request for new ones.

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President Obama at NASA’s kennedy Space Center in April 2010. Credit: NASA/BILL INGALLS

Congress also won’t have much time to devote to space policy this year. November’s elections mean Congress will be in session fewer days, squeezing out lower priority topics like space. Based on recent history, Congress will struggle to even get a final fiscal year 2017 appropriations bill passed before a new president is sworn in next Jan. 20.

Moreover, some key members of the Senate may be spending a lot of time of the campaign trail. Ted Cruz, chairman of the Senate’s space subcommittee, and Marco Rubio, a member of that committee, could be away from Capitol Hill for extended periods depending on the success of their presidential campaigns.

Of course, there will be debate in Congress about NASA, but it’s likely to focus on funding levels for ongoing programs. For example, will NASA request a lower funding level for Orion and the Space Launch System than what Congress appropriated for 2016, as it has done in recent years? Funding for planetary science, Earth science, and commercial crew will likely be debated, as they have in the past.

The House may also, once again, attempt to pass a NASA authorization bill, with the intent of providing policy guidance for NASA as it transitions to a new administration. However, in the past few years even those NASA authorization bills that made it through the House failed to win approval in the Senate, and this year shows no sign of being different.

So civil space policy has arguably entered a “coast phase,” like that part of a spacecraft’s mission between engine burns when it travels on momentum alone. That coast phase will continue not just through this year but well into next year, given the low priority space will probably have for the next administration.

When the next president does take up space, the question will be: does the coast phase end with a minor trajectory adjustment or a major course correction?