The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote this week on a spending bill that would provide NASA $16.7 billion for 2007 but require the U.S. space agency to devote a larger share of its relatively flat budget to aeronautics research and science programs.
The NASA funding is included in a nearly $60 billion spending bill covering several federal agencies. The House Appropriations Committee approved the bill June 20, one week after the bill was first marked up in subcommittee.
The full committee made no changes to the NASA portion of the bill, which would give the space agency $86 million more than Congress gave it for 2006 but $83 million less than the White House is seeking. An amendment offered by Reps. David Obey (D-Wisc.) and Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) would have given NASA another $100 million for science and education programs, but was voted down.
Even without the Obey and Mollohan amendment, the bill provides an additional $100 million for aeronautics research and an extra $75 million for science programs. It covers those increases by snipping $33 million from the agency’s $1.8 billion request for the international space station program and cutting $150 million from the agency’s proposed budget for technology development meant to enable its exploration goals. Both the space shuttle program and NASA’s efforts to replace the shuttle fleet with a new Crew Exploration Vehicle were fully funded in the bill.
Of the $75 million House appropriators added to NASA’s $5.3 billion science request, the biggest chunk, or $50 million, is directed at undoing at least some of NASA’s proposed reductions to its research and analysis budgets. Much to the dismay of the astronomers, astrobiologists, climatologists, planetary scientists and others who rely on the NASA grant money to fund their work on the agency’s various science missions, NASA research and analysis accounts took a hit this year when the agency revised its 2006 budget to free up money for other priorities.
A report accompanying the spending bill takes NASA to task for the disruption caused by cutting the supply of grant money, a topic of more than one congressional hearing so far this year. “The Committee is concerned about the damage to our nation’s research institutions that can result from the abrupt and unexpected termination of peer-reviewed scientific research grants,” the report says. “The Committee expects that NASA will avoid such actions in the future, to the extent possible.”
The House bill also includes $15 million to initiate planning for a robotic mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, reminding NASA in the accompanying report that the National Academy of Sciences’ decadal survey of planetary scientists said sending an orbiter or lander to Europa should be the highest priority of the agency’s outer planets program because of the possibility of finding life there.
Congress, in the conference report accompanying last year’s NASA spending bill, directed the agency to include money in its 2007 request to get started on the Europa mission. NASA ignored the request, saying it could not afford the $400 million-plus mission. The agency also argued that Europa’s luster had been diminished by the Cassini probe’s recent discoveries about Saturn’s watery moons Enceladus and Titan.
The remaining $10 million in additional science money would go toward the Terrestrial Planet Finder program, an effort to build a pair of powerful space telescopes designed to hunt for Earth-like planets. NASA wants to defer the multibillion-dollar program indefinitely and concentrate on finishing other major space telescope projects already in development.
While the House bill makes few major changes to NASA’s 2007 budget request beyond directing more money toward science and aeronautics, the report accompanying the bill makes clear that some lawmakers would like to see a more balanced mix of small, medium and large science missions from the agency going into the future.
“The Committee believes that NASA’s scientific successes and discoveries depend upon a well-balanced mission portfolio of large, medium, and small-sized missions,” the report says. “Reductions from planned rates of growth in Science funding appear to have fallen disproportionately on smaller missions such as the competitively-run Explorer Program, which is one of NASA’s most important programs addressing critical scientific questions. Within the funding level provided, the Committee encourages NASA to consider a restoration of funding to smaller missions and to already-competed missions to the extent possible.”
The bill must still be approved by the full House. Congressional sources said the bill could go to the floor for a vote as early as June 26.
A companion NASA spending bill has yet to be introduced in the U.S. Senate. However, two key Senate appropriators, Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) have joined forces to push for increasing NASA’s 2007 budget by as much as $2 billion above the White House request. The Senate Appropriations Committee is slated to mark up the NASA spending bill July 13.