Congress Poised To Approve $17.8B for NASA in Must-pass Minibus

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UPDATED at 4:20 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — NASA stands to receive $17.8 billion for 2012 under a $1 trillion compromise spending measure House and Senate budget negotiators released Nov. 14.

The NASA funding, which is $684 million below the agency’s 2011 level and $924 million less than the White House requested, is part of a must-pass spending package Congress is poised to adopt by Nov. 18.

The package, a so-called minibus combining three previously separate spending bills into one, was hammered out during a legislative conference committee House and Senate appropriators convened Nov. 3. Lawmakers included in the minibus a clean four-week extension of the continuing resolution that has kept the federal government operating since the new budget year began Oct. 1. Congress must pass this legislation by Nov. 18 to prevent a government shutdown.

According to the final conference report, posted Nov. 15 on a congressional website, the $17.8 billion for NASA would break down as follows:

  • $3.8 billion for Space Exploration, which is $30 million below the 2011 level.
  • $4.2 billion for Space Operations, which is $1.3 billion below the 2011 level.
  • $5.1 billion for Science programs, or about $155 million above the 2011 level. This includes funds needed for the overbudget James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which House appropriators had proposed canceling.

The minibus also includes $4.9 billion for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a 7 percent increase over 2011. Some $924 million of that amount is set aside for the Joint Polar Satellite System “to ensure the continuity of critical weather forecast data.” Lawmakers, however, denied NOAA’s request for $322 million to establish a new NOAA Climate Service.

Included in the $3.8 billion allocated for NASA’s human space exploration program is $1.8 billion for the congressionally mandated heavy-lift rocket known as the Space Launch System and $1.2 billion for its companion spacecraft, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which is fostering development of astronaut taxis for the international space station, stands to get $406 million in 2012, less than half of the $850 million the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama requested for the program this year, and $94 million less than Congress authorized. Moreover, $100 million of the appropriated funds from commercial spaceflight would be withheld until NASA Administrator Charles Bolden provides House and Senate Appropriations Committees with written notice that NASA is proceeding with its acquisition strategy for the Space Launch System.

Meanwhile, JWST would get an additional $156 million in funding on top of the White House’s request of $373.7 million. The extra money will be offset by cutting back NASA’s request for Earth science, planetary science and astrophysics.

According to the conference report:

  • Earth science would get $1.77 billion, $30 million below the request.
  • Planetary science would get $1.5 billion, $40 million below the request.
  • Astrophysics would get $672 million, $10.7 million below the request.

The balance of JWST’s shortfall for 2012 would come out of NASA’s Cross Agency Support account, according to the conference report.

Building the telescope and operating in space for five years is now expected to cost $8.8 billion, according to NASA. Besides the extra $156 million in 2013, the telescope will need $1.05 billion more from 2013 to 2018 than the $375 million a year the White House had budgeted for. NASA has acknowledged that some science programs will have to be delayed in order to secure a 2018 launch for JWST.