House appropriators vow to seek more NASA funding

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WASHINGTON — Members of a House appropriations committee said March 15 they will seek to increase funding for NASA above the administration’s request for fiscal year 2017, particularly for programs like the Space Launch System and a mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.

Leading Democratic and Republican members of the House Appropriations commerce, justice and science subcommittee told NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at a hearing that they were disappointed with the proposed $19 billion budget for the agency, nearly $300 million less than what the agency received in the final 2016 appropriations bill.

“It continues to be baffling to us why the Office of Management and Budget refuses to give you the support that we think you deserve,” Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the subcommittee, said in his opening statement. “This subcommittee will make sure that you get the resources that you need.”

“This is not a partisan issue. It’s about a national priority,” said Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), the subcommittee’s ranking member. “I share my colleague’s frustrations with this year’s discretionary budget from the president that recommends scaling back our support for NASA.”

Bolden, in his opening remarks, made clear that he supported the administration’s budget request. “I think you mischaracterized me when you say I am disappointed in the president’s budget,” he said. “I am not. I helped to craft it, and I’m very proud of it.”

However, Bolden made clear as the hearing went on that additional funding would help some programs. One example he cited was SLS, which received $2 billion in 2016 but for which the proposed 2017 budget requests a little more than $1.3 billion.

“2023 is the date to which we committed, and we’ll make that date on the president’s submission for 2017,” Bolden said, referring to the proposed launch date for the first crewed SLS mission. “If we get more money, we will buy down risk, we will do long-lead items, and we believe that would enable us to launch some time earlier.”

Bolden also dismissed criticism of SLS that Honda brought up from former Johnson Space Center director Chris Kraft, who has previously suggested that the operations costs of SLS will “eat NASA alive.” Bolden, while calling Kraft a “role model and mentor” for him, said that Kraft’s statement is based on his experience that may not be relevant today.

Culberson raised questions about the status of a mission to Europa, including development of both an orbiter and a lander mission. The 2016 omnibus appropriations bill directed NASA to launch both a Europa orbiter and lander no later than 2022 using the SLS, but Bolden suggested that the two spacecraft be launched separately.

“We have a total effort going on on the Europa mission, which is an orbiter and a lander,” Bolden said. “My strong recommendation to the committee, and my strong recommendation to the community, would be that we separate an orbiter from a lander in order to optimize our chances of being successful with both.”

Culberson appeared open to splitting the orbiter from the lander, a decision that Bolden indicated would not have to be finalized until at least 2018, when the orbiter mission has its preliminary design review. “I think you’re probably right,” Culberson said. “It may be a good idea to launch them on two separate SLS rockets so that the orbiter goes first to scout the surface.”

Culberson reminded Bolden, though, to continue to follow the direction Congress laid out in the 2016 spending bill, and not the 2017 budget proposal. “This is a very important point I want to drive home. I’m pleased to hear you say you’re following the appropriations bill,” he said. “As long as you follow the appropriations bill, we’re good.”