Committee Cuts NASA Budget, Adds Cash for SLS, Crew Capsule

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WASHINGTON — Adopting a $16.8 billion NASA spending measure that would roll back the space agency’s budget to its lowest level in several years, a House appropriations panel made sharp reductions to U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2012 funding request for commercial crew and space technology programs but provided substantially more than the administration is seeking for the next government-owned heavy-lift rocket and manned spacecraft.

The spending measure also calls for NASA’s internal watchdog to commission an outside review of the agency’s management and overall strategy.

The House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee unveiled the spending measure July 6 and unanimously approved it the next day as part of a broader bill that funds the Commerce and Justice departments and a number of other federal agencies besides NASA. The bill was scheduled to be taken up by the full committee July 13.

Subcommittee chairman Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) hewed to the GOP’s April budget resolution, which ordered Wolf and his colleagues to cut $7.4 billion out of the president’s spending request for the agencies the subcommittee oversees. NASA ended up with a 2012 top line of $16.8 billion, which is nearly $2 billion below the president’s request and $1.6 billion less than Congress gave the agency for 2011.

A specific appropriation for NASA’s commercial crew program — a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s plan for replacing the space shuttle fleet — was not spelled out in the bill itself. However, one subcommittee member, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), said during a July 7 markup session that the proposed legislation would reduce the president’s $850 million request for commercial crew activities by about 60 percent. Funding levels for commercial crew and other programs are expected to be detailed in a report the House Appropriations Committee plans to release July 12.

The funding boost House appropriators are proposing for the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) was explicitly written into the bill itself, as was a steep reduction to NASA’s space technology account. The House bill would provide just $375 million of the $1 billion the White House requested for NASA to develop and demonstrate on-orbit propellant depots and other game-changing technologies the agency says it needs to send humans beyond low Earth orbit. The $1.95 billion House appropriators approved for SLS, meanwhile, would exceed the White House request for the congressionally mandated rocket by $185 million.

The SLS companion capsule, the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), would receive $1.06 billion — $52.8 million above the administration’s request.

SLS and MPCV are to be used for deep space exploration, including the president’s stated goal of visiting a near Earth asteroid.

The bill’s call for a top-level review of NASA drew praise from both sides of the aisle during the July 7 markup.

In the text of the bill, the subcommittee provides $1 million for the NASA Office of Inspector General “to commission a comprehensive independent assessment of NASA’s strategic direction and agency management.”

Wolf said the review would “help chart a future course for the agency that is bold and achievable.”

Rep. Norman Dicks (Wash.), the top Democrat  on the full House Appropriations Committee, agreed.

“I hope Mr. Wolf’s initiative is successful,” Dicks said.