You Can't Budget Space in a Year

The most efficient way to execute a project is to undertake an in-depth planning study followed by a design phase with rigorous reviews, then go through a build-and-test phase and, finally, flight. This process demands a certain funding profile to shorten the schedule and minimize total costs. The common way of federal budgeting, a “flat-funding” profile that maintains the same amount of money throughout a project’s lifespan, is inefficient.

What’s worse—and all too common—is leaders’ practice of starting, stopping, and restarting programs. That’s more than inefficient; it’s wasteful in the extreme.

Projects often suffer from both bad budgeting habits: flat funding and starting-and-stopping. Work gets going with an even budget, Congress changes the budget, and the project grinds to a halt. For example, some work got stopped on key subsystems for Orion, the deep space human spacecraft, in order to let the big-rocket Space Launch System catch up. Because of flat funding, NASA couldn’t work on both at once.

Similarly, key Earth science missions get stretched out in wasteful study phases that keep a core team together but without the funding to move forward smartly. The launch date for the high-priority Mars sample return mission, which will bring a piece of Mars back to Earth for laboratory analysis, has remained ten years away for over a generation now.

The alternative to flat funding is the deliberate injection of additional funds as a project meets key targets. This profile becomes feasible when Congress funds NASA with a steady increase over the next eight years.