House spending bill offers $21.5 billion for NASA in 2019

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WASHINGTON — A House appropriations bill released May 8 offers more than $21.5 billion for NASA in fiscal year 2019, a significant increase over both what the agency received in 2018 and what the White House proposed for 2019.

The bill, released by the House Appropriations Committee on the eve of its markup by the commerce, justice and science (CJS) subcommittee, includes $21.546 billion for NASA. That is an increase of more than $1.65 billion over the administration’s request and $810 million more than what NASA received in the fiscal year 2018 omnibus spending bill passed in March.

The bill “continues NASA’s record-level funding, setting the agency on the trajectory to rise above and beyond the glory days of Apollo,” Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the CJS appropriations subcommittee, said in a statement about the bill.

Spending for the various accounts within the NASA budget, such as science, exploration and aeronautics, is specified in the bill, but it includes few details about how funding should be apportioned within those accounts. Those details will likely wait until the report accompanying the bill is released when the full committee takes up the bill.

That means the bill is silent on several major programs proposed for cancellation by the administration in its budget request, including the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope and four Earth science missions, none of which are explicitly mentioned in the bill.

The bill also does not discuss potential cost overruns for the James Webb Space Telescope, whose launch was delayed in March by about a year to May 2020. The bill instead leaves in place language about the mission’s $8 billion cost cap also found in previous year’s bills.

The bill, though, does specify funding for some programs. It calls for spending $545 million on the Europa Clipper mission and $195 million for a follow-on lander. NASA requested only $264.7 million for Europa Clipper and nothing for the lander.

NASA said in the budget proposal it was seeking to launch Europa Clipper in 2025 on a commercial vehicle, while the bill calls for the use of the Space Launch System and a launch by 2022. In its budget proposal, NASA estimated needing $565 million in 2019 to keep Europa Clipper on track for a 2022 launch but warned of “potential impacts to the rest of the Science portfolio” if funded at that level.

The bill includes $1.35 billion for Orion and $2.15 billion for SLS, the same funding those exploration programs received in 2018. NASA requested slightly less for each: $1.164 billion for Orion and $2.078 billion for SLS.

The bill fully funds the administration’s request for the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, at $504 million in 2019. In the committee’s statement about the bill, it said other elements of NASA’s lunar exploration programs were also fully funded, including $218 million in science for lunar missions, $116.5 million in advanced exploration systems for cislunar and lunar surface capabilities, and $150 million in the LEO and spaceflight operations account to begin the transition of the ISS to commercial alternatives. Those other spending levels were not included in the bill.

The same bill also includes funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, part of the Department of Commerce. The bill did not go into details about NOAA satellite programs, but the statement about the bill says it fully funds both the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) and Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) programs. NOAA requested $408.4 million for GOES and $878 million for JPSS, which now includes the Polar Follow-On program funding the third and fourth JPSS satellites that was previously a separate line item.