WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said May 18 that while he was happy with the overall funding the House is offering the agency in a draft appropriations bill, some elements of it are giving him a case of heartburn.
“I’m happy because the top line that we saw with the House appropriations bill is $18.5 billion,” Bolden said at a Space Transportation Association luncheon here. “What causes us some consternation is when you get down inside the budget. That’s where we have a lot of work to do.”
Bolden was referring to a funding bill that the Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee approved May 14. The full committee is scheduled to mark up the bill May 20.
That bill provides $18.529 billion for NASA in fiscal year 2016, the same amount requested by the Obama Administration in its budget proposal released in February. However, appropriators shifted funding among NASA’s various programs, adding money to the Space Launch System and planetary science and cutting space technology and commercial crew.
Bolden specifically brought up Earth science, which, while not given an explicit funding level in the draft of the bill released by the committee last week, is likely to be cut given a one-percent reduction in overall science funding and statements by the committee that planetary science funding would be increased over the administration’s request.
“That is the biggest area of heartburn” in the budget, Bolden said of Earth science. “Decimating Earth science and saying that we’re going to go to Mars is not the right way to do it.”
Bolden was particularly critical of unnamed members of Congress who, he said, have proposed giving NASA’s Earth science mission to other agencies, but have them contract with NASA to develop satellites because those other agencies don’t have the experience to build them themselves. “So help me understand how that makes sense,” he said. “We have got to get our act together when it comes to Earth science.”
Bolden also warned that the $1 billion provided to the commercial crew program, about 20 percent below the administration’s request, would likely result in delays in the development of those vehicles. NASA, he said, would not have the funding to pay the two companies under contract, Boeing and SpaceX, when they achieve milestones in that reduced funding case.
“It’s really important that whenever we come into conference, we get the full $1.2 billion,” he said, referring to the eventual reconciliation of the House and Senate versions of the spending bill.
A key reason for funding commercial crew, he said, was to end reliance on Russia for crew transportation to and from the space station. “I’m not sure how much longer you’re going to let me pay the Russians,” he said. “So I would like to get us to the point in two years that the Russians are a backup.”
Bolden noted that, for the time being, the Soyuz is not available because of the ongoing investigation into April’s Progress accident. “That’s not really that big of a concern because we have to go though this process of clearing vehicles to be flown,” he said.
He said that space station program manager Michael Suffredini was either en route to Russia or already there to sit in on meetings by the Russian space agency Roscosmos investigating the Progress failure. It was unlikely there was a specific technical issue linking that accident with the May 16 Proton launch failure, he believed, but added that “we’re looking at” any quality control concerns that the vehicles could share.
Bolden was also more subtly critical of direction in the House bill. “I think we have picked a relatively good path,” he said of the agency’s overall exploration program. “For people to say today, ‘We want you to use this vehicle to do something, or we want you to go that way, and we’re going to give you extra money so you can go do that,’ I have a problem with that as NASA administrator, because now you’re trying to tell me how to do programmatics.”
Bolden didn’t go into details, but the draft House appropriations bill provides more than $500 million above the administration’s request for SLS, despite previous statements by Bolden that additional funding for the heavy-lift launcher would not accelerate the schedule for its first launch in 2018. The bill also provides $140 million for a Europa mission, $110 million above the administration’s request, and specifies that the mission should launch on an SLS no later than 2022.
Part of the problem with all the issues facing NASA, he said, could be explained by a “constant sniping” between the White House and Congress. “We’ve got to get the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to meet somewhere,” he said.