$17.9 Billion NASA Budget Approved by House Appropriations Panel

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WASHINGTON — NASA would get $17.9 billion in 2015 under a spending bill approved April 30 by the House Appropriations commerce, justice science subcommittee. The bill sets NASA up for a slightly larger budget increase than the White House requested and maintains congressional spending priorities on big accounts including the heavy-lift Space Launch System and Orion crew capsule.

The proposed NASA budget, part of a $52.1 billion Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) appropriations bill, would also relabel the agency’s multibillion-dollar Cross Agency Support account “Safety, Security and Mission Services.” The bill now heads to the full Appropriations Committee for consideration.

Overall, the NASA budget proposed in the CJS bill is nearly 1.5 percent higher than the 2014 appropriation, and nearly 2.5 percent more than the approximately $17.5 billion the White House is seeking.

The House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee proposed raising NASA’s exploration budget, which includes SLS, Orion and development funds for the Commercial Crew Program, to roughly $4.2 billion — about 1 percent more than the 2014 appropriation and nearly 5 percent more than what the White House requested.

SLS and Orion would get the lion’s share of the Exploration total: just about $3.1 billion, according to the bill. That would leave some $1.1 billion for the Commercial Crew Program and a human spaceflight-focused technology development account. The Commercial Crew Program is the White House’s signature human spaceflight initiative. The program aims to replace the retired space shuttle’s crew-carrying capacity to the international space station with one of three commercially designed systems by the end of 2017.

The bill does not specify a 2015 funding level for Commercial Crew, but the account will indeed receive a boost, according to an April 30 statement from Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), ranking democrat on the House Appropriations CJS subcommittee.

In 2014, Congress gave the Commercial Crew program about $700 million, which is currently the high-water mark. Once mandatory SLS and Orion spending is deducted from NASA’s Exploration account, there would be about $800 million available in the account for Commercial Crew, assuming appropriators hold exploration research and development spending to the roughly $300 million it received in 2014.

Meanwhile, within the nearly $5.2 billion proposed for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, House lawmakers set aside $100 million within the Planetary Science Division to continue studies on a concept mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. That is $20 million more than lawmakers provided in the 2014 omnibus spending bill signed in March.

The White House, in contrast, is seeking just $15 million for Europa preformulation studies. At the same time, the agency is examining whether it could do a Europa mission for about $1 billion, or about half the price of the Europa Clipper concept under study at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

Of the nine major NASA spending accounts, House appropriators are proposing cuts for four: Safety, Security and Mission Services (the former Cross Agency Support account); Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration, which mostly pays for nonmission-specific construction at NASA’s national network of field centers; Education; and the Inspector General’s Office.

All other major accounts would see their budgets grow relative to 2014 appropriations.

One of those accounts, Space Technology, would see its budget grow 7.5 percent compared with 2014. But the $620 million included in the bill still falls about 12 percent below the White House request. The Space Technology account, a White House priority given its own budget line in 2011, funds some of the technologies NASA needs for its proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission, including high-powered solar-electric propulsion.

The Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee has yet to introduce its NASA spending bill. The subcommittee, led by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), expects to start work on a bill some time after May 8, when the full committee plans to set budget allocations for 2015, Mikulski said in a May 1 hearing.

At the hearing, Mikulski said she wants to get the spending bill that includes NASA’s budget through the full committee and on its way to the floor before the Senate breaks for its July 4 holiday recess.

Mikulski also made clear to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, the only witness at the hearing, that the Senate would not rubber stamp the White House’s budget request, and that some shuffling of funds was inevitable. “I’m not so sure we agree on some of these priorities,” Mikulski said.

The Senate would not, for example, tolerate the administration’s plan to reduce NASA’s Earth sciences account by roughly $56 million to about $1.77 billion, Mikulski said. The agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., of which Mikulski is fiercely protective, is deeply involved with NASA Earth science missions.