WASHINGTON — The U.S. House of Representatives on May 10 approved a 2013 NASA budget of $17.45 billion that would force an immediate restructuring of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program and partially restore proposed White House cuts to robotic exploration missions.

The House’s proposed NASA budget, part of the $51.1 billion Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Act for 2013 (H.R. 5326), cuts NASA’s top line by $324 million and would fund the agency at its lowest level since 2008.

Before a May 8 amendment stripped $126 million out of NASA’s Cross-Agency Support account and redirected it to the Justice Department’s COPS community policing program, the House bill included $17.57 billion for NASA — some $226 million below NASA’s $17.8 billion budget for 2012 and $138 below President Barack Obama’s request for the agency.

The White House threatened to veto the House bill even before floor debate started May 8.

The Obama administration said the House proposal underfunds the Commercial Crew Program and prematurely eliminates competition from the program. Those directives would increase the time the U.S. relies on Russia for crew transportation to the international space station (ISS), the White House Office of Management and Budget said in a May 7 Statement of Administration Policy. The administration requested $830 million for commercial crew in 2013 and wants to fund at least two competing, privately operated crew systems to ferry astronauts to ISS beginning in 2017. The House appropriated $500 million and ordered NASA to either pick a single provider right away or reserve most of the funds for a primary provider and give a “back-up partner” a smaller award under a so-called leader-follower arrangement.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee in a May 10 speech that NASA will pay a higher price for crew transportation if the House provisions become law.

“Ending competition by down-selecting to a sole commercial space company could double the cost of developing a privately built human spaceflight system and it will leave us in the same position we find ourselves today — having only one option for getting our astronauts to the space station,” Bolden said in prepared remarks. “We are hopeful we can work to resolve these issues and keep this important initiative on track.”

The House bill also rejects the Obama administration’s proposal to cut NASA’s Planetary Science Division by 20 percent next year, providing $1.4 billion instead of the $1.2 billion the president requested. The additional money would go toward NASA’s Discovery and New Frontiers line of competitively selected space science missions and Mars Next Decade, a planning effort the agency kicked off this year after withdrawing from Europe’s 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions for budget reasons.

House lawmakers rejected an amendment by Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) that would have taken $10 million from Mars Next Decade and given it to the Justice Department. As it stands, the House bill provides $150 million for planning a robotic Mars mission that would launch in 2018 or 2020 and advance the agency’s longstanding goal to collect samples of the red planet and bring them back to Earth. But the House bill would require NASA to fund a mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa instead of Mars if a National Research Council review determines that the agency’s Mars Next Decade proposal does not advance the cause of sample return.

Other bill highlights include:

  • NASA’s Earth Science and Heliophysics divisions would receive $1.78 billion and $642 million, respectively — a slight increase over 2012 but less than the president’s request.
  • The James Webb Space telescope would be fully funded at $628 million, with total development capped at $8.8 billion.
  • NASA’s Space Technology Program would get $632.5 million, a $57 million increase but $66 million below the president’s request.
  • Funding for the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket would be boosted slightly to $1.99 billion while funding for its companion Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle would be cut to $1 billion — a $200 million reduction.

The White House veto threat aside, the House must reconcile its NASA spending proposal with the Senate before final legislation can be sent to Obama to be signed into law. The Senate Appropriations Committee on April 19 approved a $51.8 billion Commerce, Justice, Science spending bill that includes more NASA funding than the House version.



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Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.