NASA Budget Bill Would Boost Commercial Crew, Keep SOFIA Flying, Kill Hosted Climate Instrument

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WASHINGTON — A report accompanying the roughly $17.9 billion NASA budget the House Appropriations Committee approved May 8 shows the bill would set a new high-water mark for funding for the Commercial Crew Program, nix NASA’s plan to get a climate sensor to space as a commercially hosted payload, and continue funding a telescope-equipped 747 the White House has proposed grounding.

The report, released May 7 to explain in greater detail the $52.1 billion spending bill the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee approved April 29, would also prescribe new spending restrictions for a proposed mission to send humans to an asteroid by 2025. Report language, unlike bill language, does not carry the force of law, but agencies usually comply with such provisions in order to maintain good relations with appropriators.

According to the report, the 2015 Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) appropriations bill would give NASA’s Commercial Crew Program $785 million for 2015. While that is about 7.5 percent below what the Obama administration is requesting for its signature human spaceflight program, it is nearly 13 percent above the 2014 appropriation, the program’s current high-water mark.

The Commercial Crew Program seeks to produce by late 2017 a commercially designed, crewed space system to replace the Russian Soyuz spacecraft as NASA’s means of sending astronauts to the international space station. NASA has been paying Russia up to $70 million per seat for astronaut round trips on Soyuz since the space shuttle fleet was retired from service in 2011.

Boeing Space Exploration, Sierra Nevada Space Systems and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. are all vying for funding under the commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract, the program’s fourth major phase. Awards are due in July or August. In 2012, NASA spread more than $1 billion among these three companies in the Commercial Crew Program’s third phase, and the agency would prefer to keep at least two companies funded going forward.

But House Appropriators have never accepted NASA’s argument that competition in the latter phases of the Commercial Crew Program is essential, and they put their foot down in the bill report.

The $785 million proposed for Commercial Crew in 2015, lawmakers wrote in the bill report, “shall support one industry partner’s advancement through the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability process.”

The report also takes aim at another White House favorite, the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). Unveiled in April 2013, ARM would use a small robotic spacecraft to nudge a boulder-sized space rock into a lunar storage orbit where astronauts could visit it by 2025 using the congressionally mandated Space Launch System and Orion crew capsule NASA is spending roughly $3 billion a year to develop.

The report says NASA should stop spending money on ARM-related technologies unless they “are also applicable to other current NASA programs, clearly extensible to other potential future exploration missions, such as to the Moon, [Mars’ moons] Phobos/Deimos or Mars, or have broad applicability to other future non-exploration activities, such as in-space robotic servicing.”

This may not slow the agency down much; NASA has said all along that ARM will use technology such as high-power solar electric propulsion that is required for a horde of other space missions, including humans to Mars. However, the report language might skew the competition between the two asteroid retrieval spacecraft concepts NASA is set to choose between this year by effectively banning development of one of them.

The possibly troubled concept is one proposed by engineers at the California Institute of Technology as part of the 2012 paper NASA used as the blueprint for ARM. Engineers at the school, which manages NASA’s Pasadena, California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory, called for developing an inflatable bag to envelop a target asteroid and tractor it to a lunar storage orbit. NASA has not publicly discussed any other use for this bag.

On the other hand, a competing asteroid retrieval spacecraft concept proposed by engineers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, would use robotics tools derived from a Goddard-built set already flying aboard the international space station as part of an active satellite-servicing demonstration project.

NASA has not formally committed to doing ARM at all, but estimates the asteroid retrieval portion — which excludes launch costs and the price of the follow-on crewed expedition with SLS and Orion — would cost about $1.25 billion.

Meanwhile, the CJS spending bill would provide $70 million in 2015 for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, an infrared telescope-equipped Boeing 747 jetliner operated by NASA and the German Aerospace Center, DLR, in an 80-20 partnership that has NASA paying the bulk of mission costs. The White House proposed grounding the observatory in the budget request it sent Congress in March, asking only $12 million in 2015 for closeout costs.

In the report released May 7, House appropriators said they did not accept NASA’s “request” to terminate the international flying telescope and directed the agency to keep looking for someone to pay its bills. DLR has already said it is not interested in becoming the primary operating partner on the mission. NASA was planning to put the observatory into storage by Sept. 30, 2015, according to NASA Astrophysics Director Paul Hertz.

On the Earth science side of things, the proposed spending bill would alter NASA’s plans to begin making a series of climate measurements transferred to it in January from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The CJS bill “does not include funds requested for the procurement of the Total Solar Irradiance Sensor 2,” according to the report. That would put a dead stop to NASA’s plan to fly the sensor to geostationary orbit as a hosted payload aboard a commercial communications satellite.

NASA has not identified a host satellite for the yet-unbuilt Total Solar Irradiance Sensor 2, but agency Earth Science Division Director Michael Freilich said last year the instrument was to be delivered to its host by Sept. 30, 2019.

The reason NASA was planning a commercially hosted Total Solar Irradiance Sensor 2 is the agency was given responsibility in January as part of the $1.1 trillion Consolidated Appropriations Act for 2014 (H.R. 3547) for a series of climate measurements historically gathered by NOAA, which would have been performed entirely by the Joint Polar Satellite System series of spacecraft that will begin launching in 2017, and by the Suomi NPP satellite that launched in 2011.

NASA had planned to fulfill its new climate obligations by launching a series of instruments including the commercially hosted solar irradiance package and the planned Radiation Budget Instrument, which would have been carried to space aboard NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System-2 in 2021. A predecessor instrument, the Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System, will be launched aboard the Joint Polar Satellite System-1 in 2017.

However, the CJS bill approved by the House Appropriations Committee would direct NASA to prepare for the possibility that the Radiation Budget Instrument might not be permitted aboard a NOAA satellite. Appropriators say they are concerned that putting the Radiation Budget Instrument aboard the Joint Polar Satellite System-2 spacecraft could introduce risk into the program, delay its launch and create a gap in U.S. weather coverage from the polar orbit.

Reducing the possibility for such a gap was the reason Congress and the White House transferred climate measurements from NASA to NOAA in the first place.

House appropriators are seeking to direct NOAA to report, within 60 days of their CJS bill becoming law, on whether including the NASA-developed Radiation Budget Instrument on the Joint Polar Satellite System-2 spacecraft is unduly risky. If NOAA determines it is, NASA would then have to stop work on the instrument altogether until it figures out another way to launch it, and reports the cost of that plan to Congress.