WASHINGTON — NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is getting its largest annual budget allocation to date in an omnibus spending bill for 2014 that provides $17.6 billion overall for the space agency, which is about $100 million below the White House’s request but roughly $700 million more than the agency’s sequestered 2013 budget.

The $1.1 trillion Consolidated Appropriations Act for 2014 (H.R. 3547), which funds all federal activities for the remainder of fiscal year 2014, also extends by three years the legal regime that shields U.S. commercial launch services providers from damage claims that exceed $500 million, and continues a prohibition against spending any NASA appropriations on bilateral cooperation with the Chinese government or Chinese companies.

The omnibus spending measure, representing a compromise hammered out in December that provides some relief from the across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration, passed the House Jan. 15 and the Senate Jan. 16. It was signed into law Jan. 17 by U.S. President Barack Obama.

The bill provides $696 million for NASA’s effort to spur private-sector development of crew transportation services to and from the international space station, the biggest allocation yet for an effort of which many lawmakers have long been skeptical. But the allocation is still considerably less than the $821 million sought by Obama and also comes with a string attached: $171 million of the funds would be held in reserve until NASA completes an independent cost-benefit analysis of the program. That would temporarily keep the program funded at about $525 million, the same level it got in 2013. 

NASA's Budget Under the 2014 Omnibus

Even before it was passed by the House and Senate, the bill drew a positive reaction from the White House, which in recent years has been at loggerheads with Congress over NASA spending priorities.

The NASA portion of the budget “looks pretty darn good,” Rich DalBello, assistant director for aeronautics and space at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said Jan. 14 during a panel discussion at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Science and Technology Forum at National Harbor, Md. “Important … things seem to have been protected, and that’s positive because that means we’re on the same page with Congress. And in this town that’s always a complicated undertaking.”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, in a Jan. 14 message to agency employees, called the bill a “vote of confidence” that reaffirms bipartisan congressional support for space exploration. “The bill keeps NASA’s deep space exploration program (the Space Launch System and Orion) on track and provides funding to formulate the agency’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, an important stepping stone on the path to Mars,” he said. 

But the bipartisan measure still reflects many of the concerns Congress has expressed about the White House’s direction for NASA.

For example, in the report accompanying the bill, lawmakers continued to prod NASA about its plan to capture a small asteroid with a robotic spacecraft and store the rock in a distant lunar retrograde orbit for a visit by astronauts sometime next decade. The report urged the agency not to commit to the mission before more thoroughly vetting it with the relevant NASA oversight committees in Congress.

“NASA has not provided Congress with satisfactory justification materials such as detailed cost estimates or impacts to ongoing missions,” lawmakers said of the proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission. “The completion of significant preliminary activities is needed to appropriately lay the groundwork for the [mission] prior to NASA and Congress making a long-term commitment to this mission concept,” the report says.

The bill also boosts funding for NASA’s Planetary Science Division, which is responsible for exploring the solar system with robotic probes. Next to Earth Science, Planetary Science has the second-largest budget of any NASA science division — provided the flagship James Webb Space Telescope is not included as part of the Astrophysics Division’s budget. However, Planetary Science has seen its budget fall in recent years. Like other NASA science divisions, the division’s budget was tapped to pay for James Webb’s substantial cost overruns.

In the omnibus bill, Planetary Science gets just over $1.3 billion, a 9 percent increase from the White House request and 5 percent more than its sequestered 2013 budget. In the bill report, lawmakers told NASA to use some of the extra funds to start a new competition for a Discovery-class mission in May, with the winner to be announced by September 2015. 

Lawmakers also included $80 million to continue studying the proposed Europa Clipper mission, which would send an orbiter to the Jupiter system in 2021 to study the planet’s icy moon, Europa. That is $10 million more than mission planners got last year. 

This is not the first time in recent years that Congress has sought to increase funding for planetary science over and above the White House’s request. But the White House has used its limited authority to reprogram funding postappropriation to shift funding back toward its priorities, such as Earth science, the largest NASA Science account. 

The practice has begun to grate on lawmakers, according to language in the bill report.

“Reprogramming and transfer authorities exist so that NASA can respond to unexpected, exigent circumstances that may arise during the fiscal year, not so that NASA can pursue its internal priorities at the expense of congressional direction,” the report reads. “If NASA persists in abusing its reprogramming and transfer authorities, those authorities will be eliminated in future appropriations acts.”

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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...