Updataed 07/19 to correct Commercial Crew budget numbers

WASHINGTON — Setting aside the threat of continued budget sequestration, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) managed to win enough Republican votes July 18 to send to the floor a bipartisan 2014 spending bill that includes $18 billion for NASA. That’s $1.4 billion more than their counterparts in the GOP-controlled House approved and nearly $300 million more than the White House requested.

Before House and Senate appropriators even have a chance to hammer out the sizable differences between their competing spending packages, the bills — which also fund the U.S. Commerce and Justice departments and several federal science agencies — must first come to the floor in their respective chambers. Only three of the 12 appropriations bills that fund the federal government have cleared the House. None have cleared the Senate.

Current appropriations, which Congress approved in two six-month installments known as continuing resolutions, run out when the government’s 2014 budget year begins Oct. 1. And with Congress — which rarely holds votes on Mondays or Fridays —set to take the month of August off, there are precious few days left to enact a 2014 budget. The Senate has 26 legislative days scheduled before the Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013 (H.R. 933) expires; the House is scheduled to spend just 18 days in session between now and the end of September.

As a result, NASA officials are taking it for granted that the politically divided Congress will fail again this year to enact fresh appropriations before the new budget begins.

“I’d be shocked if we don’t get a continuing resolution, starting Oct. 1, for some length of time,” Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said during a July 15 meeting of the Outer Planets Assessment Group.

But despite the considerable funding gap between the bills approved by the Senate and House Appropriations Committees — the House Appropriations Committee is treating next year’s budget as if it were already sequestered, approving a $16.6 billion NASA budget July 17 — the two chambers in many cases agree about which NASA programs need the most funding.

Both bills, for example, gave NASA’s still-in-development Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket far more funding than the White House is seeking for 2014. Including vehicle development at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and associated ground systems at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Senate appropriators — in approving their 2014 commerce, justice, science spending bill by a vote of 21-9 — provided $1.91 billion, about 12.5 percent above the request. The House provided 4 percent more than requested.

Both the House and Senate bills also gave more than the White House asked for the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle NASA and contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems are building to launch atop SLS. The House committee’s appropriation is just 3 percent higher than the request, but the Senate committee has approved $1.2 billion for 2014, nearly 17 percent more than the White House requested.

The two bills are closely in sync with regard to Planetary Science, the division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate responsible for robotic solar system exploration. The House and Senate each gave the division about $1.32 billion, about 8 percent more than the White House requested. Since 2012, when it had about a $1.5 billion budget, Planetary Science has been tapped to cover cost growth on the James Webb Space Telescope, and to provide a funding boost for the Earth Science Division.

Outside of those programs, differences between House and Senate priorities begin to emerge.

For example, the Senate bill provides all $1.85 billion the White House requested for Earth Science. The House bill, on the other hand, funds that account at $1.66 billion, 10 percent below the request.

Likewise, the Senate bill gives exactly what the White House requested for the James Webb Space Telescope: $658.2 million. The House bill, on the other hand, provides $518.6 million, about 11 percent lower than the request for the technically ambitious astrophysics flagship, which has a history of cost growth and delays. The telescope is now expected to cost $8.8 billion to build, launch, and operate in space for five years. Launch is scheduled for 2018.

House and Senate appropriators are also hundreds of millions of dollars apart on the Commercial Crew Program. Neither appropriations committee met the White House’s $821 million request for Commercial Crew, but the Senate bill sets a new high water mark with a $775 million, well above the $489 million the program got in 2013 under NASA’s sequestered spending bill. The House, in its sequester-level bill, provided $500 million. NASA wants at least one of the three privately developed spacecraft it is subsidizing under Commercial Crew to be ready to fly astronauts to the international space station by 2017.

Other NASA highlights in the Senate version of the bill:

  • Science Mission Directorate: $5.14 billion, nearly 3 percent above the request, 7 percent above the House bill, and about 1.5 percent below what NASA spent in 2012, the last year in which the agency’s budget was not subject to sequester.
  • Exploration Systems: $4.21 billion, 7.5 percent above the request, about 14 percent above the House bill, and about 13.5 percent more than in 2012.
  • Space Operations: $3.88 billion, in line with the request, 5.5 percent above the House bill, and about 7 percent less  than in 2012, when a space shuttle pension liability and space shuttle closeout funding were still included in this account.
  • Cross Agency Support: $2.79 billion, about 2 percent below the request, 3 percent more than the House bill and about 6.5 percent less than in 2012.
  • Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration: $586.9 million, about 3.5 percent below the request, roughly 10.5 percent above the House bill and about 18.5 percent above 2012.
  • Aeronautics: $558.7 million, about 1 percent less than the request and the House bill, and almost 2 percent less than in 2012.
  • Education: $116.6 million, nearly 24 percent above the request, about 4.5 percent below the House level, and roughly 14 percent less than in 2012.
  • Inspector General: $38 million, about 2.5 percent more than the request, 7 percent less than the House bill and about 1 percent less than in 2012.

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.