WASHINGTON — The U.S. House of Representatives is slated to begin debate May 8 on a 2013 appropriations bill that would cut NASA’s budget by more than $200 million, overhaul commercial crew procurement plans and potentially force the agency to begin work on a Europa orbiter instead of a Mars probe.

These provisions are part of a broader $51 billion Commerce, Justice, Science spending package approved April 26 by the House Appropriations Committee.

By voting to reduce NASA’s budget to $17.57 billion — a $226 million cut that would leave the agency with its smallest budget since 2008 — House appropriators set the stage for a showdown with their Senate counterparts, who voted April 19 to raise NASA’s budget to $19.4 billion and make the agency responsible for funding the civilian weather satellites it already orders on behalf of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Not counting the $1.6 billion in weather satellite money included in the Senate bill, NASA’s budget would decline by $41.5 million.

Another key difference between the House and Senate bills is their treatment of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The White House is seeking $830 million in 2013 to fund continued development of two or more privately operated crew transportation systems that could be ready to haul astronauts to the international space station by 2017.

Both the House and Senate bills deny the full request, providing just $500 million and $525 million, respectively. But the House bill would also direct NASA to narrow the field of competitors sooner than the agency intends and speed the transition to traditional government contracts from the flexible Space Act Agreements the agency has been using since it started the Commercial Crew Program in 2010.

In the report accompanying their bill, House appropriators say that narrowing the field now would reduce the projected $4.8 billion cost of the program and free up money for planetary science, human space exploration, aeronautics research and other priorities.

“The Committee believes that many of these concerns would be addressed by an immediate downselect to a single competitor or, at most, the execution of a leader-follower paradigm in which NASA makes one large award to a main commercial partner and a second small award to a back-up partner,” the report says.

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation, in an April 25 statement. said the changes House appropriators are proposing “would result in a significant delay in restoring U.S. human access to orbit.

“NASA has carefully designed a program that maintains competition, and preserves safety, through the development and certification process, and that uses the appropriate contracting mechanism at each stage,” the statement said. “It is best to leave decisions on program management to the NASA human spaceflight professionals who have access to all the information and have worked closely with all the competing companies.”

Planetary Protection

House appropriators, like their Senate counterparts, rejected a White House proposal to cut NASA’s $1.5 billion planetary science budget by 20 percent next year. “Planetary science has long been one of NASA’s most successful programs, and the cuts proposed in the budget request will endanger this strong record and deviate significantly from the program plan envisioned by the most recent planetary science decadal survey,” House appropriators wrote in the report accompanying their bill.

House appropriators included $1.4 billion for planetary science — a 7 percent cut compared with 2012 — and directed NASA to put an additional $115 million into the Discovery and New Frontiers programs of competitively selected missions.

The House bill also carves out an additional $88 million, providing $150 million in total, for Mars Next Decade, the planning effort NASA kicked off in February after withdrawing from Europe’s ExoMars sample-collection campaign. But House appropriators make clear they do not want NASA to launch a Mars mission in 2018 just for the sake of launching a Mars mission. If the National Research Council determines NASA’s Mars Next Decade mission concept “will not lead to the accomplishment of sample return” — the top priority flagship-class mission in the latest decadal survey — then NASA would be required to shift the Mars money into an outer planets flagship program “in order to begin substantive work on the second priority mission, a descoped Europa orbiter,” the report says.

The House bill also includes $14.5 million for an ongoing effort to restart U.S. production of plutonium-238, a radioisotope NASA uses to supply electricity to spacecraft venturing to destinations beyond the range of solar power, such as Jupiter and its icy moon Europa.

House appropriators covered these and other increases by boosting the NASA Science Mission Directorate’s budget to $5 billion, which is only $5 million above this year’s level but more than $180 million above what the White House is seeking.

Within the $5 billion, Earth science and heliophysics would receive “modest increases” compared with 2012, but not as much as the White House requested. The James Webb Space Telescope, which has grown so expensive that it now commands its own budget line, would get $628 million in 2013, the same as the request. Like last year’s spending bill, the 2013 bill would impose an $8 billion cap on what NASA can spend on Webb through its launch in 2018.

Other highlights of the House bill include:

  • $632.5 million for NASA’s Space Technology program, which is $57 million above this year’s level but $66 million below request.
  • $1.99 billion for the Space Launch System (SLS) and related ground systems, or about $54 million more than those efforts received for 2012.
  • $1 billion for the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, or about $200 million below this year’s level.

The House bill, if it becomes law, would give NASA 180 days from enactment to submit a number of reports, including one identifying the destinations NASA intends to explore with Orion and SLS and outlining the other flight hardware — and money — the agency needs to accomplish these missions.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office, in a report released in March, said NASA is evaluating 15 possible missions for Orion and SLS ranging from sending astronauts to an asteroid to landing on Mars.

“SLS program officials stated that the lack of a defined mission is a challenge when trying to design and build a vehicle, because the program will have to build the flexibilities into the design to accommodate mission specific requirements,” the Government Accountability Office report said.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.