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The Consequences of the 2014 Midterm Elections for NASA

Some priority shifts, but there is unlikely to be a major change the direction of the space program

Posted by Casey Dreier

05-11-2014 14:36 CST

Topics: FY2015 NASA Budget, Explaining Policy, opinion, Space Policy

The Republican party won a significant majority in the U.S. Senate yesterday, reshuffling the balance of power in Congress starting next year. As the new majority, Republican members will assume chairmanship of crucial committees and subcommittees which write the legislation governing NASA in the Senate. Thankfully, due to the generally good working relationship between the two parties on space issues, I don’t think there will be any significant shifts in space policy over the next two years, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be some consequences.

U.S. Capitol Building

Andy Withers

U.S. Capitol Building

So let’s speculate! Here are some of my predictions for what happens with a Republican-led Senate:

  1. A Farewell to ARM?
    I think the biggest consequences relate to NASA’s Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM). It was never very popular to begin with, gaining only tepid support from Democrats in the Senate, but Republicans have been deeply skeptical of the proposal, particularly in the House. ARM is strongly tied to the Obama Administration, which does it no favors these days, and the program has moved slowly, preventing it from building much structural or monetary momentum. Even the White House has not shown much desire to request funding for it. I would expect any authorization and appropriations bills to forbid funding this program in the future, matching legislation we’ve already seen out of the House. The White House will have much bigger fights on its hands than whether or not NASA captures and redirects an asteroid, so don’t expect too much pushback on that front. I have a hard time seeing how ARM moves forward in this political climate.

  2. The Space Launch System Will See Increased Funding
    Senator Richard Shelby will assume chairmanship of the Senate’s full appropriations committee will likely assume chairmanship of the Senate's Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations subcommittee which covers NASA. (SpaceNews reports that Shelby may seek chairmanship of the Senate's Banking committee instead of the full appropriations committee). Shelby fights hard for Alabama and Marshall Space Flight Center, which is the epicenter of the SLS program. In the 2015 NASA budget, the Senate appropriated $1.6 billion for SLS, a full $224 million more than requested by the White House—and that was with Shelby a member of the minority. As the Chairman of both committees, Shelby will have even more ability to support the SLS and its related human spaceflight programs.

  3. NASA as a Whole Will Suffer a Budget Cut
    Despite NASA being a generally popular, bipartisan affair, its funding is discretionary, and discretionary spending has been a target of Republicans for years. In an effort to reduce the deficit, and with tax increases anathema to the party, the only likely target for cuts will be the government’s discretionary spending. I doubt NASA will be targeted specifically, but there will be less money to go around. Combine that with the possible return of the sequester in 2016, and the 2020 census (paid for out of the same pot as NASA) and you have a significant number of obstacles lining up against the space program’s budget (as well as all basic R&D funding in the United States).

    There’s also Ted Cruz of Texas, a popular figure among the conservative base and the architect of the government shutdown of 2013. He will likely assume chairmanship of the Senate’s Space and Science subcommittee, which sets policy and funding caps for NASA via regular authorization bills. In 2013 during an attempt to pass a new authorization Bill for NASA, all of the Republicans on this committee voted to authorize top-level spending caps for NASA that matched those of the sequester. This is not required by the Budget Control Act, and authorized spending levels are rarely matched by appropriators anyway. But with a Presidential election coming in 2016, any authorization above levels prescribed in the Budget Control Act will be unlikely.

  4. Planetary Science Will See Better Fortunes
    Planetary science has bipartisan, bicameral support, no controversial proposals, and a clear direction and set of goals defined by the scientific community. Add in the unique utilization capability of the SLS for outer planet planetary missions (helping to keep a regular cadence of launches) and you have a potent argument for increased and steady funding for this productive division within NASA.

All of these apply to the next Congress, which doesn’t convene until January of next year. In the meantime, we have a lame duck session through December that will grapple with some important issues remaining from this legislative year: namely the 2015 NASA budget and authorization.

The U.S. budget has remained in limbo in the Senate since the summer. The government is operating on a two-month temporary budget extension that expires in December. So either the current, Democratically-controlled Senate will pass a budget within the next six weeks that gets approval by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, or everyone punts until next year, which would allow the Republicans in the Senate to exercise more control. No one knows yet what will happen—even those working in Congress. My instincts tell me that we won’t have a 2015 budget until next year, but I won’t go so far as to make any predictions.

The other interesting outcome is the Authorization bill, which sets NASA’s priorities and top-line spending caps. The House passed a version by a very large, bipartisan majority earlier this year. The Senate has been working on its own version, but has not yet released it to the public or for a vote. With very few remaining work days in the Senate, plus the added temptation to wait until the Republicans are in the majority, I have little hope that an actual authorization will be passed in to law before the end of the year.

Again, there is unlikely to be any wholesale shift in the direction of NASA, despite the change in the Senate. There will be some adjustments in priorities, but overall the space agency will likely continue on its current path. This is fortunate, and a real testament to the bipartisan support for space exploration. While NASA will likely see less money, this will be an effect, rather than a cause, of larger political pressures. It’s along for the ride, though with strong proponents like Shelby in the Senate and Lamar Smith in the House, I think NASA will remain strong.

So what impact do you think the election will have on NASA? Share your opinions in the comment section below.

See other posts from November 2014


Or read more blog entries about: FY2015 NASA Budget, Explaining Policy, opinion, Space Policy


Malcolm: 11/05/2014 04:44 CST

I would hope that there would be more debate over the future path of human space exploration. I strongly disagreed with the Obama Administration's mindset regarding the decision not to return to the Moon - their 'been there, done that' approach. It showed a lack of deep thinking on the issue of human space activities, and more discussion and debate is needed to consider what human space activities on the lunar surface, and in Cislunar space, might contribute to the overall goal of human space exploration. Mars will always be there, and we might achieve a great deal so much sooner by returning to the Moon and establishing a permanent presence there.

ethanol: 11/05/2014 05:26 CST

I'm not sure how all of these things add up together. If NASA's budget is going down, and the SLS budget is going up, how is planetary science also doing better? IIRC, education has already been cut a lot, so what else is there cut: commercial crew? Also, if the SLS is being used for planetary science, is the money for launches coming out of planetary science or the SLS budget? From the estimates I have heard, the cost of a single SLS launch is equivalent to a flagship class mission, so if planetary science is paying for them, I don't see how it will have any money for payloads!

ethanol: 11/05/2014 05:29 CST

Also: "There’s also Ted Cruz of Texas, a popular figure among the conservative base and the architect of the government shutdown of 2013. He will likely assume chairmanship of the Senate’s Space and Science subcommittee" -shudder-

Stephen: 11/06/2014 05:13 CST

Why would Republicans kill the ARM yet increase the SLS? Without the ARM the SLS would--correct me if I am mistaken--for all practical purposes be a space launch system without anything to launch. (Not counting ISS resupply missions and putative but thus far non-existent outer planet missions.) If Republican budget cutters are looking for programs to slash-and-burn, then surely killing the ARM would seem to make the SLS the next logical target to be knifed, If Senator Shelby therefore wants to save the SLS he (equally logically) should seek to save the ARM as well. True, I may be expecting logic from a barrel of pork, but it is hard to see Republicans being able to justify take the budget knife to NASA in other ways yet leaving one of its largest targets/programs intact but useless "As the Chairman of both committees, Shelby will have even more ability to support the SLS and its related human spaceflight programs." And what "related human human spaceflight programs" would those be if the ARM goes the way of Constellation? As far as I can make out those would then be just the ISS; and it is destined to end not all that far down the track. "Add in the unique utilization capability of the SLS for outer planet planetary missions (helping to keep a regular cadence of launches)" "Regular cadence of launches"? Just exactly how many outer planet missions does NASA have on its launch schedule? Has it (somehow) stumbled across the proverbial pot of gold at end of the funding rainbow that will allow it to send out outer planet missions on a regular basis without congressional money?

Curiosity: 11/06/2014 09:32 CST

I believe that both the Moon and Mars should be common concerns to the common people; if not purely for scientific discovery, for energy. If no one noticed, one side of the Moon faces the sun all the time. Japan is working on putting solar panels on the Moon and with that could produce "a steady stream of 13,000 terawatts of power." (see: Then with Mars, a Solar Wind Ion Analyzer (SWIA) can be planted that if I recall could produce enough energy to power the earth 50 times over. (see:

DonaldFRobertson: 11/06/2014 12:26 CST

Unfortunately, I think the combination you outline spells serious trouble. More money down the SLS black whole in a declining budget can only come from science or commercial cargo and crew, with the latter more likely. Commercial LEO transport is the one near-term chance we have to lower costs and make space more accessible for science, commerce, and humans alike. Reducing commercial cargo or crew is likely to result in a single contract, which would remove the incentive to lower costs. Worse, the crew contract would likely go to Boeing, a traditional aerospace company. Any chance of a radical reduction in costs would be lost.

Bob Ware: 11/06/2014 12:32 CST

I am going to guess since the budget is out of hand that next Congressional session will drive cuts starting with high visibility targets so they can tell/show the average person in the street that they are doing something. Unfortunately these high visibility targets to star with always seem to be at NASA. The "good guys always finish last" expression may be applied in 2015.

Paul Scutts: 11/07/2014 12:52 CST

Let's stop all this doom and gloom. ARM will go. Commercial support for fledgling NewSpace will not only continue but will increase. In place of ARM, Constellation will be returned, IMO, the single greatest thing that politicians "got right" since Apollo. Hey, this is my fantasy, either share it or leave it alone. LOL.

George: 11/07/2014 03:27 CST

@Curiosity: "If no one noticed, one side of the Moon faces the sun all the time." Wow. Just... Wow... The answer to your statement is. No it doesnt. It faces Earth all the time. Time between lunar sunrise and sunset is approx. 14 Earth days, so 1 Lunar day is about 28 Earth days, with 14 Earth days sunshine and 14 Earth days night. Did you by any chance got confused about some spots on some near-polar crater rims that see constant sunshine because of the near zero tilt of the Moon's rotational axis? And then mixed this up with the fact that one side of the Moon faces Eath all the time?

Messy: 11/07/2014 07:41 CST

If the asteroid capture is cancelled, then what's the point of Orion? Yeah, the flight in December would still go on, but DAMN!!!! There is only ONE mission conceived for it and that was it. As to SMS, what's it going to be used for if Orion has no missions?

Dougforworldsexplr: 11/07/2014 05:42 CST

Although I am glad, Casey, that you indicate that Planetary Science spending should at least remain steady I hope that funding will continue for the TESS and James Webb telescope especially to find out more about especially habitable exoplanets and I hope the private space program continues but I am glad that there might be more spending on the Space Launch System. I am also glad that the asteroid retrieval mission might be cancelled and hope this is an indication that an asteroid won't be the immediate destination of the SLS but instead it will be our Moon. The moon is a much better destination than an asteroid for manned exploration for resource, science, strategic and inspirational aspects and much of it is still quite unexplored. I still hope that the SLS will eventually bring astronauts to Mars with enough life support systems. I also hope it will incorporate a lander for bringing astronauts to the Moon or eventually on Mars.

Stephen : 11/07/2014 07:44 CST

@Dougforworldsexplr "I still hope that the SLS will eventually bring astronauts to Mars with enough life support systems" The SLS program is just the launch vehicle. It does not need life support systems. You're probably thinking of Orion.. As for sending astronauts to Mars, that would be a separate program in itself, one which the present Administration unlike to propose and even if it did Congress may no more be like to (properly) fund than it did the preceding Constellation's return to the Moon. That being the case, if ARM is cancelled also, SLS will probably find itself on the chopping block before too long, especially if the incoming Republicans cut the corporate tax rate, thereby digging a large hole in the deficit unless they raise taxes elsewhere or cut programs. In that context, orphaning the SLS by abolishing the ARM would make the SLS a sitting duck. "I also hope it will incorporate a lander for bringing astronauts to the Moon or eventually on Mars." Constellation had a moon lander. It was called Altair. Unless somebody revives the Return to the Moon push, Altair or any the Moon lander is unlike to be revived. The same goes for Mars landers. Unless, that is, NASA is given the go-ahead to send astronauts to Mars by creating (and funding) a manned Mars program, something which seems unlikely to happen if a large hole gets excavated in the American deficit by the tax cuts many are predicting will happen.

Daniel9: 11/09/2014 05:06 CST

I support the other comments that acknowledge the conflict between funding SLS and funding science. Do not be fooled that SLS is your friend. NASA will need to spend $2-3B funding this somehow and it will clearly require cuts in science. The only reason human spaceflight is reaching out to science is to find some excuse to build this monster with no destination (especially since you think ARM will be cancelled)

Antares: 11/09/2014 05:17 CST

SLS/Orion and Constellation are the same program under different names; SLS Block II Crew is just an updated Ares IV, and SLS Block II Cargo is just an updated Ares V. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling you something. The virtue of SLS/Orion is precisely that it is mission independent. It really doesn't matter what space priorities any given congress or administration may have, everybody can find a use for that much lift. ARM was a means of initially re-budgeting Constellation, taking advantage of certain representatives (not illegitimate) fears about asteroids, but the point was always to build the capacity to lift heavy payloads far into space, not necessarily putting space-baggies around rocks.

Daniel9 : 11/09/2014 06:47 CST

Agree that SLS/Orion is basically the same as Constellation. The problem is that the cost is the same as well - and the on-going operations will eat NASA's budget and leave no funds to build any science missions for it. Even the largest and most expensive Delta and Atlas rockets cost ~$200-300M a launch. SLS will be $2-3B a year - and launch only every 2 years. How can people be missing this basic fact?

Antares: 11/09/2014 07:08 CST

The goal, as I understand it, is to get SLS up to a sustained rate of two launches per year, balanced between crewed Orion missions and robotic exploration missions. That's roughly the current launch rate of the Delta IV Medium, but with a lot more payload capacity and for uncrewed missions, a LOT more speed. Crewed missions to Mars will still need to slow down (ie, add more payload) to the rate of a Hohmann transfer orbit to Mars, to take advantage of the free return trajectory in case things go badly. Uncrewed missions are not so encumbered, so SLS can cut the transit time of robotic missions to superior planets by as much as 60%. That's a huge savings in overall mission costs. Building cookie-cutter platforms for heterogeneous missions also reduces overall mission costs, whether we're talking about aircraft, container ships or spaceflight; this has been an important element in the success of the Soyuz missions. Also, larger payload capacity for science missions can accommodate more different science payloads per launch, which also reduces mission costs. SLS won't be cheap; nothing going into space ever is. But the more missions that are sent up, the lower the per-mission costs will be.

Torbjörn Larsson: 11/11/2014 04:28 CST

@Malcolm: "I strongly disagreed with the Obama Administration's mindset regarding the decision not to return to the Moon - their 'been there, done that' approach." The startegy didn't originate with the Obama Administration and has nothing to do with 'been there, done that'. It was a result of the independent Augustine commision. It concluded that Constellation/SLS is too expensive for US and Moon is an expensive, unnecessary detraction if the target is to explore Mars. @Antares: "SLS won't be cheap; nothing going into space ever is. But the more missions that are sent up, the lower the per-mission costs will be." It will still be too expensive, as per Augustine, and will kill the human space program with a maintained or shrunken budget. The economical lift capacity for interplanetary missions given the current technology has been long estimated to 50 mt. That you want to exceed Saturn lift capacity is a politcal, not an exploration, decision.

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