WASHINGTON — In a preview of a budget hearing scheduled for April 25, NASA’s lead appropriator in the U.S. Senate raised concerns about the reduced level of funding the agency requested in 2014 for planetary science, the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket and its companion Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.

“I’ll be very blunt: With Sen. Shelby as my vice chairman, we can’t cut Orion and SLS,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said April 15 at a luncheon hosted by the Maryland Space Business Roundtable in Greenbelt, Md. “That’s the political reality.”

Although Mikulski chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee and its commerce, justice, science subcommittee, she shares power in both roles with Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), a fierce defender of NASA’s Huntsville, Ala.-based Marshall Space Flight Center and its marquee program, SLS.

Mikulski said the commerce, justice, science subcommittee will review NASA’s $17.7 billion budget request during an April 25 hearing — a day after the House Science, Space and Technology space subcommittee holds its own NASA budget hearing.

The White House is seeking a total of $2.7 billion for SLS and Orion for 2014 — about what it requested in 2013, but roughly $115 million less than the projects stand to receive under the Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013 (H.R. 933), which became law March 26.

Mikulski’s comments cast a shadow over remarks made two days later by NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver at the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s eastern shore.

Speaking to reporters covering Orbital Sciences Corp.’s April 17 attempt to launch the Antares rocket it developed to loft space station cargo for NASA, Garver said she believes Congress will approve the agency’s $821 million request for the Commercial Crew Program — an amount some $300 million greater than Congress so far has been willing to spend on NASA’s effort to foster privately owned spacecraft to carry astronauts to the space station starting in 2017.

But some Orion and SLS supporters in Congress have already blasted NASA’s commercial crew proposal as too generous. Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, said the $821 million NASA is seeking for the program “is not defensible” in light of the lower funding level proposed for SLS, according to a statement on his website.

NASA’s commercial crew request for 2014 is about $330 million higher than the roughly $490 million the program stands to receive this year. At the same time, SLS development — which covers the work being done at Marshall but excludes a related launch infrastructure effort at Kennedy Space Center, Fla. — would fall roughly $350 million next year under NASA’s proposal.

With the space shuttle fleet retired, NASA says the money it is giving Boeing, Space Exploration Technologies and Sierra Nevada Corp. to develop rival crew taxis is the fastest avenue for ending U.S. dependence on Russia for transporting American astronauts to and from the space station. NASA recently ordered an additional two Soyuz flights from the Russian space agency, reserving rides for U.S. astronauts through spring 2017. Soyuz flights cost NASA about $65 million a seat — money Garver said would be better spent with U.S. companies.

“We believe that Congress is going to see that … and be able to fund the request at the $821 million level,” Garver said. “We truly believe that Congress has been learning and accepting of the importance of this capability.”

Planetary Science

NASA has already encountered pushback from solar system exploration advocates for proposing to fund the Planetary Science Division at $1.21 billion next year. While that is slightly more than NASA requested for 2013, it is less than Congress included in H.R. 933.

“I’m concerned … that planetary science received a close to 12 percent decrease — $168 million,” Mikulski said at the Maryland Space Business Roundtable lunch. “That’s kind of hard, and I know it comes from the Mars robotics program. We have to take a look at that. I’m not prepared to say yes, no, or whatever. I am prepared, though, to talk about these principles that we want. So we need our space science program.”

While Congress included $1.38 billion for planetary science in H.R. 933, that figure is still subject to sequestration — mandatory spending cuts that hit all federal agencies at the end of March. While NASA expects to lose about 5 percent of its funding under the sequester, agency officials have said that some programs will be cut more so that other programs can be cut less. Jim Green, NASA’s Planetary Science Division director, told a gathering of scientists April 4 that he expects planetary science to be cut by more than 5 percent when NASA submits its operating plan to Congress for review next month.

That news did not sit well with Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), whose district includes NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Schiff was joined by Sens. Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer — both California Democrats — and Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), a planetary science buff, in an April 18 letter urging NASA Administrator Charles Bolden not to play favorites when deciding how to divvy up the $16.6 billion the agency expects to get once sequestration is taken into account.

“We write to express opposition to any Fiscal Year 2013 Operating Plan that disproportionately applies sequester and across-the-board cuts to the Science budget,” wrote the lawmakers, three of whom serve on their chamber’s appropriations committee. “While we fully understand that the funding levels enumerated in [H.R. 933] and report are subject to change to reflect the across the board and sequester cuts, we expect that the balance among programs will remain consistent with the structure directed by Congress.

“We appreciate your personal attention to this matter and look forward to working with you to ensure a workable and robust Planetary Sciences program.”

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...