House passes spending bill with space provisions intact

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WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives passed an omnibus appropriations bill for fiscal year 2018 Sept. 14 that keeps funding for NASA and NOAA programs unchanged from earlier bills.

The House passed by a 211–198 vote H.R. 3354, the Make America Secure and Prosperous Appropriations Act, which combined eight separate appropriations bills into a single omnibus bill. Among the original bills included in the omnibus is the commerce, justice and science (CJS) appropriations bill, which the House Appropriations Committee approved July 13.

That earlier bill offered $19.871 billion for NASA for 2018, compared to the administration’s request of less than $19.1 billion and the agency’s $19.65 billion budget for 2017. Those provisions were unchanged in the omnibus bill, and there were no amendments during floor debate of the omnibus to make significant changes to those sections.

Also unchanged are portions of the CJS bill that fund weather satellite programs at NOAA. The House bill provided full funding for the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R (GOES-R) and the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) programs, but slashed funding for the Polar Follow-On program of future JPSS satellites. The bill provides only $50 million for that program, compared to the administration’s request of $180 million, itself a steep cut from 2017.

The White House Office of Management and Budget, in a statement of administration policy about the omnibus bill Sept. 5, criticized the Polar Follow-On cut. “Insufficient funding for this program could increase both the cost of procurement in future years and the risk that critical weather forecasting data would be unavailable after the current generation of satellites reach the end of their operational lives,” it said.

That statement, while generally supporting the NASA provisions of the bill, raised questions about funding for flagship planetary science programs. The administration, it stated, “is concerned that funding additional flagship missions in [fiscal year] 2018 would place significant pressure on the Science budget in future years as these missions ramp up and compete with other priorities.”

The statement didn’t elaborate on those concerns, but it appeared to be directed at funding for a Europa lander mission included in the House bill. The administration requested no funding for that mission, focusing instead on the Mars 2020 rover mission and Europa Clipper multiple-flyby mission.

Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), the chairman of the CJS appropriations subcommittee, is a strong advocate of both Europa Clipper and a follow-on lander, providing additional funding above administration requests for those missions in recent years.

The full Senate has yet to take up either a standalone CJS appropriations bill or an omnibus bill like the House. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved its CJS spending bill July 27, providing $19.529 billion for NASA.

Among the key differences between the House and Senate bills is funding of Earth science programs. The Senate bill provides more than $1.9 billion for Earth science, including report language specifying funding for five missions or instruments slated for cancellation in the administration’s request. The House bill offered $1.7 billion for Earth science without addressing the fate of those programs.

The House and Senate bills also differ to a lesser degree on the future of a satellite-servicing program called Restore-L that the administration sought to restructure into a more generic satellite-servicing program with a budget of $45 million. The Senate bill endorsed continuing Restore-L at $130 million, the same amount it received in 2017, while the report accompanying the House bill merely supported continuing the Restore-L program without specifying a funding level.

Chris Scolese, director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said that while both the House and Senate bills were “great,” he ultimately expected Congress to fund both Restore-L and one of the Earth science missions proposed for cancellation, the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite.

“The House bill is great. The Senate bill is great. The Senate bill mentions both Restore-L and PACE,” he said at a Sept. 8 Space Transportation Association luncheon on Capitol Hill. “I think those missions have a very good chance of continuing.”

“We’ve had great support from the Senate and the House, and I can’t thank the people enough, the members and the staff, for what they do,” he added.

As in past years, NASA and the rest of the federal government will start the new fiscal year Oct. 1 on a continuing resolution (CR) that funds agencies at 2017 levels. President Trump signed into law Sept. 8 a bill that included a CR that funds that government until Dec. 8, avoiding the prospect of a government shutdown at the beginning of the new fiscal year.

Scolese, asked about the effects of a CR on Goddard’s programs, said it does “create difficulties” for current programs, limiting planning to only the length of the CR. “It makes it very difficult for projects,” he said, particularly for those in the middle of development. “The more CRs we have, the more difficult it becomes.”

But, he added, “A CR is better than nothing.”