House Budget Bill Would Leave it to NASA To Apportion Bulks of Cuts

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WASHINGTON — U.S. lawmakers who voted last week to kill NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope as part of a broader effort to roll back federal spending to pre-2008 levels would leave it to the space agency to decide how to apportion the bulk of a deep top-line budget cut, according to a congressional report obtained by Space News.

The House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee approved a 2012 spending bill July 7 that would give NASA $16.8 billion, or $1.6 billion less than it received for 2011 and nearly $2 billion less than the White House requested for the agency for next year.

The legislation, which is scheduled to be taken up July 13 by the full House Appropriations Committee, spelled out specific spending levels for NASA’s nine major budget accounts and a handful of programs, including the Webb telescope.

While appropriators traditionally detail the numerous additions and subtractions they make to an agency’s budget in lenghty reports accompanying the spending bills, this year the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science committee opted to leave it to NASA to make many of the line-item cuts.

“Rather than including a detailed table showing the recommended levels for each individual project and activity proposed in the budget request, the Committee has chosen to provide a table that focuses more generally at the theme and program level with a limited amount of additional detail,” the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee wrote in the report accompanying its 2012 appropriations bill. “This will permit NASA some discretion to allocate available funds according to the most urgent priorities and needs.”

The report, which is expected to be released by the House Appropriations Committee July 12, was obtained by Space News.

The report gives NASA a broad outline of recommended spending levels to use as a blueprint, but calls on the agency to make many of the detailed puts and takes and provide corresponding details about its choices in the spending plan the agency submits to Congress once the appropriations process is complete.

By these recommendations, NASA’s Exploration Mission Directorate will get $3.69 billion, including $1.95 billion for the Space Launch System (SLS) and $1.06 billion for the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). Those craft are the two components of the deep-space exploration system Congress ordered NASA to build last year. Other Exploration allocations spelled out in the report include $312 million for commercial crew activities, and $289 million for exploration research and development.

The amount of money House appropriators saw fit to include for commercial crew is the same amount the program received for 2011 but represents a sharp reduction relative to U.S. President Barack Obama’s February request for the agency. The administration sought $850 million, which itself was well above the $500 million authorized in October by Congress.

“The sizable increase in the budget request . . . was premature given the still-undefined acquisition strategy for the Commercial Crew Development Round 3 (CCDev 3) awards and the uncertainty behind assumptions about pricing, schedule, market demand, flight opportunities and other economic factors that are essentially unknowable at this time,” the subcommittee said in its report.

The subcommittee also warned NASA that funds appropriated for the Space Launch System and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle are intended for design and development, and not for covering expenses related to “civil service oversight, program integration, ground operations and mission operations.

“In order to facilitate the Committee’s oversight of NASA’s ‘taxation’ of the MPCV and SLS budgets for those related expenses, NASA’s spending plan should clearly itemize all costs under both the MPCV and SLS programs that are not directly tied to actual vehicle design and development and provide a justification for why those expenses cannot be addressed elsewhere or deferred,” the report said.

Meanwhile, the Science Missions Directorate, which absorbed about a quarter of the cuts proposed for NASA’s  top line, would get $4.5 billion. That includes $1.7 billion for Earth Science, $1.5 billion for planetary science, $643 million for astrophysics and $622 million for heliophysics.

The report holds up the James Webb Space Telescope as a poster-child for NASA inefficiency and a “particularly serious example” of the kind of cost overruns that are “commonplace at NASA.”  The panel said it elected to make an example of Webb to “establish clear consequences for failing to meet budget and schedule expectations.”

The Space Operations Directorate would get $4.05 billion, including $548 million to wind down the space shuttle program, $2.8 billion for the international space station, and $749 million for space and flight support.

Among the report’s other specifics:

  • $4 million of NASA’s Outer Planets Flagship budget is set aside “to conduct the necessary descoping studies” for the Jupiter Europa Orbiter and Mars sample return mission. Unless NASA can show Congress that it has come up with an “acceptably descoped” flagship, the remaining $39 million included in the bill for an outer planets flagship should be reprogrammed to support other planetary science priorities, it says.
  • A recommendation that NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate delay the start of a robotic precursor program for another year.
  • Cuts $100 million from NASA’s Earth science request while urging the agency “to protect, to the extent possible, high priority missions” including IceSat-2, the Soil Moisture Active-Passive mission, the Deformation, Ecosystem Structure and Dynamics of Ice, or DESDynI, mission as well as missions nearly ready to launch. “While the Committee supports Earth Science functiions, this area has rapidly grown over the past few fiscal years, and the current constrained fiscal environment simply cannot sustain the spending patterns envisioned by NASA in this field,” it says.