WASHINGTON — The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a spending bill June 11 that would leave NASA with some $239 million less than the agency says it needs for 2016, a cut that drew criticism from NASA and others in the Senate particularly for its reduction to NASA’s commercial crew program.

The NASA funding, which at $18.29 billion is about $280 million more than the agency got for 2015, is included in a $51.1 billion appropriations bill that the committee approved on a 27–3 vote. The vote came one day after the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, and science (CJS) subcommittee marked up the bill during a brief session.

The White House, in submitting its 2016 budget proposal to Congress in February, asked lawmawker to fund NASA at $18.529 billion, or nearly $520 million more than NASA received for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. The House of Representatives, in passing its own CJS appropriations bill June 3, approved the full $18.529 billion for NASA, but shifted funding from some programs, including commercial crew and space technology, to the Space Launch System and planetary science.

Commercial Crew Takes $334 Million Hit

The Senate bill has similar changes. It provides commercial crew with $900 million, $344 million less than the request. The funding is also moved from NASA’s exploration account to its space operations account, which primarily funds the International Space Station. The report accompanying the bill explained that the move will allow the overall ISS program “to be analyzed and evaluated in its entirety.”

“By gutting this program and turning our backs on U.S. industry, NASA will be forced to continue to rely on Russia to get its astronauts to space.” — NASA Administrator Charles Bolden

Senate appropriators suggested that NASA’s plans announced earlier this year to procure Soyuz seats for missions in 2018 indicated that the agency was not confident at even this early stage that the two companies with commercial crew contracts, Boeing and SpaceX, could remain on schedule to begin flights in 2017.

NASA’s Soyuz plans, the report stated, “are deeply concerning and indicate that even NASA, which has continual insight and oversight of the ISS crew program, does not have confidence that even with significant financial and technical support, the availability of a reliable domestic ISS crew capability by 2017 is guaranteed.”

The reduced funding for commercial crew prompted a strong response from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who said in a June 10 statement he was “deeply disappointed” by the Senate’s decision.

“By gutting this program and turning our backs on U.S. industry, NASA will be forced to continue to rely on Russia to get its astronauts to space – and continue to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into the Russian economy rather than our own,” he stated.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) also criticized the commercial crew funding cut in a June 10 speech on the Senate floor. “If that cut in the subcommittee is sustained,” he said, “it’s going to delay us from being able to launch Americans on American rockets.”

$150 Million Plus-up for Goddard

Another program cut from the administration’s request is space technology, which receives $600 million, a reduction of $125 million. The bill also requires NASA spend $150 million of that on a satellite servicing mission concept called RESTORE-L. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), ranking member of the full appropriations committee and its CJS subcommittee, has been a strong advocate of that effort, based at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The bill report explained that funding for RESTORE-L was explicitly included in the bill “so it continues in a timely fashion and to avoid lingering drains on satellite servicing funds that have been diverted to other purposes in earlier years.”

Other programs received funding increases. The bill provides $1.9 billion for SLS, an increase of $544 million above the administration’s request. It also gives the Orion crew vehicle $1.2 billion, $104 million more than the request. The additional funding for SLS is intended to allow its initial launch “as early as possible in 2018,” the report stated.

Earth and Space Science

The bill funds NASA science programs at effectively the same level as the administration’s request, unlike the House bill that cut Earth sciences by more than $260 million and increased planetary science by nearly $200 million. While the House bill included $140 million for a Europa mission, $110 million above the request, neither the Senate bill nor the report specified funding for the mission. The Senate report, though, does endorse the mission and directs NASA to launch it on the SLS.

The Senate bill, while fully funding Earth sciences, does not provide any funding for a free-flyer mission included in the request fors a thermal infrared instrument. Instead, the report directs NASA to accelerate work on Landsat 9 so it can be ready for launch by 2020, three years earlier than NASA’s current plans.

Mikulski, who said the overall bill didn’t have “enough money to meet compelling national needs” during the subcommittee markup, introduced an amendment during the full committee markup to add nearly $2.8 billion to the bill. That included $500 million more for NASA, $300 million of which would have gone to commercial crew.

The amendment, though, ran afoul of spending caps set in place by the Budget Control Act of 2011. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the CJS subcommittee, said that without a deal like the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, which lifted the spending caps for fiscal years 2014 and 2015, he could not support the amendment. The amendment failed on a party-line vote, 14–16.

The bill’s future in the Senate, though, is unclear. Leading Democrats in the Senate, including Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), have proposed blocking debate on all appropriations bills as a tactic in negotiations about spending priorities. They argue that the White House has previously threatened to veto any appropriation bill that is funded at the lower levels of the Budget Control Act.

Reid, in comments on the Senate floor June 10, warned that without progress on budget negotiations, the federal government could shut down when the new fiscal year starts Oct. 1. “We’re headed for another shutdown,” he said.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...