WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives approved an amendment to an appropriations bill June 3 that gives the Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial space office part of a budget increase it requested to keep up with its growing workload.

The House approved by voice vote an amendment to appropriations bill for the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development that transfers $250,000 from an FAA account for financial and management activities to its Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST). Rep. James Bridenstine (R-Okla.) introduced the amendment with Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and Bill Posey (R-Fla.)

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla)
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla)

The House passed the amendment after comments by Bridenstine. “This is a small amount, but it is extremely important if we are to support the booming commercial spaceflight industry,” he said. “This funding will give AST additional resources to accomplish its mission.”

The White House, in its fiscal year 2016 budget proposal, requested $18.1 million for AST, an increase of $1.5 million from 2015. However, the bill approved by House Appropriations Committee in a May 13 markup session did not provide any increase for the office, funding it at the 2015 level of $16.6 million.

FAA officials, including the associate administrator for commercial space transportation, George Nield, have warned in recent months that without the increase, primarily intended to hire 25 additional employees, AST would not be able to keep up with what it forecasts to be continued growth in both suborbital and orbital commercial launch activity.

“If, for some reason, Congress felt they would not be able to provide that increase,” Nield said at an April 21 meeting of the National Research Council’s Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board, “then we’d be in a position where we’re going to need to prioritize what’s on our plate, and do the best that we can to keep up.” That prioritization, he added, could result in delays in processing launch license applications and other oversight work.

Bridenstine, speaking on the House floor, offered a similar warning. “This funding will give AST additional resources to accomplish its mission,” he said. “If AST does not get the additional resources, it could lead to slips of planned launch dates for some companies as the office is unable to process inspections, permits, and licenses in a timely manner.”

In his floor speech, Bridenstine didn’t explain why he sought only $250,000, one-sixth of the original increase. Sources familiar with the bill said that the lower amount was the most appropriators would accept at this point in the budget process, and that the FAA was willing to accept a smaller increase versus none at all.

CSF President Eric Stallmer. Credit: Brian Berger

Industry groups like the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), while holding out hopes for a larger budget increase for AST, still welcomed the smaller amount approved by the House. “We thank them for the leadership,” CSF President Eric Stallmer said of the amendment’s sponsors in a June 4 statement.

Stallmer added that he plans to work with Bridenstine and others in Congress “as the appropriations process continues to ensure that the government has the necessary funding to be a stable and helpful partner in the economic development of space.”

Others noted the amendment was more evidence of the growing role Bridenstine is playing as a supporter of the commercial space industry. He introduced a bill addressing commercial remote sensing licensing issues that the House Science Committee approved May 13. That bill was incorporated into a broader commercial space bill the House passed May 21.

Bridenstine was also a co-sponsor of a commercial weather data bill the House passed May 19. During debate June 2 on the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) appropriations bill, which funds the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, he introduced an amendment to provide $9 million to fund a pilot commercial satellite weather data program. He withdrew the amendment after a promise by Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the CJS appropriations subcommittee, to find funding for it later in the budget process.

“Bridenstine is becoming a multi-issue champion of commercial space in Congress,” said commercial space policy consultant James Muncy June 4. “He doesn’t just fight for good policies, but he works to get the right resources in place as well.”

The House was still debating the overall appropriations bill when it adjourned for the week June 4. It is expected to complete debate and vote on the bill June 9.

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...