Two Days of Debate Included Half-hearted Efforts To Restore Commercial Crew Funding

WASHINGTON — As the U.S. House of Representatives approved a spending bill June 3 that provides $18.5 billion for NASA, members promised to revisit funding for at least two of the agency’s major programs later in the budget process.

The House approved the $51.4 billion Commerce, Justice and Science (CJS) appropriations bill, H.R. 2578, on a 242–183 vote, largely along party lines. That vote took place after a two-day floor debate on the bill that included consideration of dozens of amendments, most not related to the space agency.

The bill the House passed is, for NASA, effectively identical to the version approved by the House Appropriations Committee May 20. It provides $18.529 billion for NASA that, while the same overall level as the Obama administration’s request, shuffles funding among some agency programs.

Those differences from the budget request include an increase of nearly $550 million for the Space Launch System. That increase will “speed up when we will use that important launch system to get Americans back into orbit,” said Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the CJS appropriations subcommittee, during floor debate about the bill June 2.

Other members, though, mentioned a reduction of more than $240 million from the administration’s request for the commercial crew program. “We still are not dealing with the pressing issues of fully funding commercial crew,” said Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), the subcommittee’s ranking member.

“We must set priorities within the NASA budget to make sure that the American astronauts are launched from American soil on American vehicles sooner rather than later.”

Neither Fattah nor other members, though, introduced amendments to increase funding for commercial crew, or for NASA’s Earth science and space technology programs that also suffered cuts from the administration’s request. Instead, he suggested he would work to address those issues when the House bill is reconciled with the Senate’s version.

“Funding space technology and our commercial crew program — and I know the chairman agrees with me — are going to be important efforts for us to try to improve in this bill as we go towards conference with the Senate,” Fattah said.

Later in the debate, Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), whose district includes the Johnson Space Center, called for an increase in commercial crew. “We must set priorities within the NASA budget to make sure that the American astronauts are launched from American soil on American vehicles sooner rather than later,” he said, but stopped short of introducing an amendment to do so.

Culberson said that he would work to increase funding for commercial crew as well as the Orion spacecraft. The bill funds Orion at the administration’s request of about $1.1 billion, but Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.) expressed concern during the debate that this level was not sufficient to keep the program on schedule.

“I want to assure you that as we work through this process in conference and the additional funding becomes available,” Culberson said, “we are going to fill those holes and make sure that we are given as much support as we possibly can to commercial crew and to Orion.”

On to the Senate

That additional funding, however, may require a broader deal to modify the spending caps imposed by the Budget Control Act. The Senate has not started work on its version of a CJS appropriations bill, but spending allocations approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee May 21 provide $51.1 billion for its CJS bill, slightly less than the House bill.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), ranking member of the committee, complained that the allocations were too small. “This funding ceiling is just very, very spartan,” she said at the May 21 markup. “It simply is not enough money.”

“Are you going to save this planet or put all the money into the moon of Jupiter?”

Mikulski, noting that the White House has threatened to veto bills at the budget allocations approved by the committee, suggested Senate Democrats might block bills or otherwise slow down the appropriations process without changes to the allocations. “We want to move the process forward to get as many bills to the floor,” she said. “But when we get to the floor, I think there will be a new strategy.”

While the House passed no amendments to cut NASA funding, a decision by appropriators to increase funding for a proposed Europa mission drew criticism from one member.

Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) said that while the administration requested the same amount — $30 million — for both the Europa mission and an ocean science program within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the former received a $110 million increase while the latter was cut by more than $20 million.

“So don’t tell me that there isn’t money available. It is just the priority where you give it,” he said during debate on an amendment to reallocate funding within NOAA for the program. “Are you going to save this planet or put all the money into the moon of Jupiter?”

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...