UPDATED June 5 at 5:06 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — NASA’s massive Space Launch System development effort gets a lift while its Commercial Crew Program gets more scrutiny in a proposed Senate spending bill that provides $17.9 billion to the space agency next year, about $254 million more than in 2014.

The proposed NASA budget is part of a $52.1 billion spending package approved June 5 by the Senate Appropriations Committee. NASA’s proposed appropriation is $439 million more than the White House requested. 

“We were very disappointed in the president’s request,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee and its commerce, justice, science subcommittee, said during a June 3 subcommittee markup.

The bill must be passed by the full Senate and reconciled with counterpart legislation passed in the House, which included $17.896 billion for NASA, before it can be signed into law. Mikulski said she was negotiating with Senate leadership to get “a cluster” of appropriations bills to the Senate floor by the week of June 16.

The Senate’s plan provides $1.7 billion for the heavy-lift SLS rocket, some $350 million more than the White House requested and $100 million more than the House proposed.

SLS is being built at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is an ardent defender of the center.

The bill also provides $805 million for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, under which the agency is funding work on three competing astronaut transportation systems with the goal of having at least one delivering crews to and from the international space station by the end of 2017.

The White House requested $850 million for the Commercial Crew Program, its top human spaceflight development priority. The House proposed $785 million, which would represent a high water mark on an activity that has never received the full funding sought by the White House.

Although the White House appears to be winning over Congress on Commercial Crew spending, lawmakers still have concerns, as evidenced by language inserted by Shelby in the report accompanying the Senate bill. The language would effectively bar NASA from waiving certain federal procurement rules on the fourth and final development phase of the program.

Ongoing work on the Commercial Crew Program’s third phase is funded via NASA Space Act Agreements, some details of which are posted on the agency’s website. 

The final phase, called Commercial Crew Integrated Capability, includes the first contracted astronaut round-trip to the space station. NASA, which plans to award at least two fixed-price contracts in July or August, said late last year that it would seek exceptions to certain Federal Acquisition Regulations in those deals. 

Shelby’s measure would require the Commercial Crew Program to comply with the strict federal accounting standards in section 15.403-4 of the Federal Acquisition Regulations. 

“Without the proper foundation and necessary requirements for certified cost and pricing data, NASA will have no insight into ongoing cost growth that could jeopardize the viability of the [Commercial Crew] program,” the bill report says.

NASA claims that waiving these and other requirements would allow Commercial Crew competitors to work faster and save money without sacrificing astronaut safety.

The space station program itself would get about $3 billion under the bill, which is roughly in line with the White House’s request and the House’s proposed funding level. 

NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, which includes the four disciplines of astrophysics, Earth science, heliophysics and planetary science, would receive $5.2 billion — about $200 million above the White House’s request, and in line with what the House has proposed.

Other highlights of the bill report include:

  • A reprieve for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, which the White House proposed grounding as part of its 2015 budget request. The 747 jet-mounted telescope would get $87 million for 2015 in the Senate’s proposed budget. The White House proposed only $12 million to cover closeout costs.
  • $130 million for the robotic satellite servicing capabilities at the Goddard Space Flight Center’s Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office in Greenbelt, Maryland.
  • Full funding for the Mars rover Opportunity, which the White House effectively proposed canceling by relegating funds for its extended mission to the Obama administration’s Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative. The initiative called for spending $56 billion more in 2015 than Congress agreed to spend as part of a bipartisan budget deal reached in December. House Republicans have declared the initiative, which included about $900 million for NASA, dead on arrival. 
  • A transfer of “development and cost responsibility” for the Jason-3 ocean altimetry satellite and the Deep Space Climate Observatory to NASA from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The bill funds these missions at $25.6 million and $24.8 million, respectively. NOAA would still operate the spacecraft once they reach orbit. 
  • Direction that NASA immediately start work on a successor to the medium-resolution Landsat 8 Earth-observing spacecraft that became operational in May 2013. The committee decreed that Landsat-9 cost no more than $650 million to build and launch and that all associated contracts be fixed-price agreements, with project reserves capped at 10 percent. 
  • A requirement that NASA use the SLS to launch a Europa exploration mission now in the early planning stages at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

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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...