House spending bill would boost NASA funding

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WASHINGTON — House appropriators introduced a spending bill June 28 that would increase NASA’s budget by nearly $800 million above the administration’s request, with particular support for the agency’s exploration and education programs.

The bill, to be marked up by the commerce, justice and science (CJS) subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee June 29, would provide $19.872 billion for NASA, $780 million more than in the administration’s request released May 23. It would also be $218 million above what the agency received in the fiscal year 2017 omnibus appropriations bill enacted earlier in May.

“NASA has also earned the highest level of funding in the history of the agency,” Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) said in a statement accompanying the release of the draft bill. “For too many years, NASA has been overloaded with too many missions and not enough funding. This bill guarantees NASA receives the funding they need to lift America’s space program above the glory days of Apollo.”

NASA’s exploration account receives the largest increase in the House bill: a $616 million increase over the request to $4.55 billion. The bill would fund the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System at the same levels as in the 2017 omnibus bill, rather than the lower levels in the budget proposal. It increases funding for ground systems and exploration research and development above both the request and the 2017 omnibus bill.

The bill would also restore much of NASA’s education program, which the administration proposed closing in its 2018 budget request, offering $37.3 million in closeout costs. The bill offers $90 million for education, $10 million below the 2017 level. The bill specifically funds two programs in that office, Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) and National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program, that would have been shut down in the budget request.

Plans to end those education programs faced bipartisan opposition when the CJS subcommittee held a hearing on NASA’s budget proposal June 8. “I’m concerned about, in your budget, your cuts to the Office of Education,” said Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), a former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee who is now a member of the CJS subcommittee. “I can’t understand why you would want to cut that.”

NASA’s science account would get an increase of $147 million from the request to $5.859 billion. The bill does not include funding levels for the various divisions within the account, although the statement accompanying the bill notes that it “targets funding to planetary science and astrophysics to ensure the continuation of critical research and development programs, while reducing funding for lower-priority research.”

The bill text does specify that NASA spend $495 million of the science budget on both Europa orbiter and lander missions, launching in 2022 and 2024 respectively. Culberson has been a strong proponent of Europa exploration. The administration had requested $425 million, exclusively for the Europa Clipper orbiter mission and not for a follow-on lander.

The bill, after the June 29 markup, will likely be taken up by the full committee after the July 4 recess. The Senate has yet to introduce its version of the bill. The CJS subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the administration’s budget request for NASA on June 29, with NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot testifying.