House spending bill increases NASA planetary science, cuts NOAA weather satellite program

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WASHINGTON — A fiscal year 2018 spending bill that will be marked up by the House Appropriations Committee July 13 includes record funding levels for NASA’s planetary science program, but severely cuts a NOAA weather satellite program.

The committee released July 12 the report accompanying the commerce, justice and science (CJS) appropriations bill, which its CJS subcommittee approved on a voice vote June 29. At that time, the committee had released only a draft of the bill, with limited details about how the nearly $19.9 billion provided to NASA would be allocated.

In NASA’s science account, planetary science emerges as a big winner, with the report allocating $2.12 billion, a record level. That amount is $191 million above the White House request and $275 million above what Congress provided in 2017.

Some of that additional funding will go to missions to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, thought to have a subsurface ocean of liquid water that could sustain life. It provides $495 million for both the Europa Clipper orbiter mission and a follow-on Europa Lander, to be launched by 2022 and 2024, respectively. The administration’s budget request sought $425 million, devoted solely to Europa Clipper.

The report also provides additional funding for Mars exploration, including $62 million for a proposed 2022 orbiter mission. NASA sought just $2.9 million for studies of future Mars missions, raising worries among scientists that NASA would not be able to get an orbiter, with telecommunications and reconnaissance capabilities, ready in time for the 2022 launch opportunity.

Another Mars mission concept, a small helicopter that would fly with the Mars 2020 rover mission, would get $12 million in the House bill. That technology demonstration concept has been studied for some time as a possible complement to the rover, but NASA has not made a formal decision about including it on the mission.

The report includes broad support for other planetary programs, including $60 million for near Earth asteroid searches and development of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft. That spacecraft would collide with the moon of one such asteroid to measure the ability to deflect potentially hazardous objects.

The report also directs NASA to work with industry on a report “on the utilization of asteroid-based natural resources to support U.S. government and commercial space exploration missions and timeframes for when such resource extraction could possibly occur.”

While the report provides additional funding, and direction, for planetary science, it cuts funding for NASA’s Earth science program. It gives that program a little more than $1.7 billion, $50 million below the request and more than $200 million below what it received in 2017.

The report does not address plans by the administration, in its 2018 budget request, to terminate five planned or ongoing Earth science missions. It does support full funding of the Landsat-9 spacecraft under development as well as a joint mission with the Indian space agency ISRO to fly a synthetic aperture radar spacecraft.

NASA’s astrophysics program received $822 million in the report, $5.3 million above the administration’s request and $72 million above 2017 levels. That includes $126.6 million, as requested, for the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) mission, but with language expressing concern “about potential cost growth in this program.”

Later in the report, the committee directs NASA to ensure WFIRST is compatible with a proposed future “starshade” that could allow the space telescope to directly image exoplanets. NASA officials said earlier this year they have yet to decide whether to incorporate that compatibility into WFIRST, and will likely defer that decision until at least late this year.

The James Webb Space Telescope would get $533.7 million in the bill, the same as requested, while NASA’s heliophysics program would get $677.9 million, also in line with the administration’s request.

The report also specifies funding for several space technology and exploration programs. Under space technology, nuclear propulsion work would receive $35 million, including a requirement for a report on budgets and milestones needed “in order to conduct a nuclear thermal demonstration project by 2020.” NASA’s exploration program includes $150 million for its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) in order to develop a habitat that can be tested in low Earth orbit in 2020.

The Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (CATALYST), which includes partnerships with industry to develop commercial lunar landers, would get $30 million. Among the companies involved in the Lunar CATALYST program is Moon Express, which released plans July 12 for a series of commercial lunar lander and sample return missions.

Weather satellite funding

Besides NASA, the CJS bill also funds NOAA and its weather satellite programs. The agency’s two major current programs, the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R (GOES-R) and the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), would receive the requested amounts of $518.5 million and $775.8 million, respectively.

However, the report severely cuts funding for the Polar Follow-On program, which supports development of the third and fourth JPSS satellites. The program received $328.9 million in 2017 and was projected, from the 2017 request, to receive $586 million in 2018. However, the administration requested only $180 million for the program, citing plans to potentially stretch out the schedule for launching those missions.

The committee, in the report, was disappointed with the lack of details about those plans. “The request proposes a dramatic and incipient re-plan of this program. Yet the request fails to assess the purported new mission design’s impacts on constellation availability, or to provide an updated gap analysis, or new annual or lifecycle cost estimates,” it states, providing just $50 million for Polar Follow-On.

The committee was more generous with the Solar Weather Follow-On mission, also known as Solar Weather Forward Observatory. The administration requested just $500,000 for the program, which received $5 million in 2017, stating that it wanted to study alternative approaches to replace existing space weather monitoring spacecraft in the early 2020s.

The report provides $8.5 million for the program in 2018, which is still far less than what NOAA projected spending in 2018 in last year’s budget request. The committee directed NOAA “to refine the Space Weather Follow-On concept and develop mission requirements for a cost-effective capable space system.”

The full House Appropriations Committee will mark up the bill, with the potential for amendments, July 13. The Senate Appropriations Committee has not started work on its version of a spending bill.