House OKs More NASA Funding, but with Stipulations

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WASHINGTON — House appropriators rebuffed NASA’s decision to move the long-planned Space Interferometry Mission (SIM) to the backburner.

NASA officials demoted the SIM planet-hunting mission last year to a technology development effort, saying the U.S. space agency could not afford to undertake a new flagship-class astronomy mission until it finished ones it already had started, namely the James Webb Space Telescope and the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy.

Both of those projects are costing considerably more than expected and Sofia actually was headed for cancellation until NASA reversed course in the face of congressional opposition. In addition, NASA’s astrophysics division must pay a share of the cost of servicing the Hubble Space Telescope next year and cover all of the subsequent expenses associated with operating the refurbished observatory.

The House Appropriations Committee, in an attempt to remedy NASA’s cash crunch and free up more funding for SIM and other congressional priorities, approved a $17.6 billion budget for the agency for 2008 – nearly $290 million more than the White House requested.

The funding was included in the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations bill, which cleared the full committee July 12.

Before the bill becomes law, it still must be approved by the full House and reconciled with the Senate version of the bill, which provides a smaller increase for NASA and no additional money for SIM. If the House provision holds sway, SIM would be funded at $71.6 million , $50 million more than the agency intends to spend on a SIM-related technology effort it has renamed Navigator.

“The Committee disagrees with the Administration’s budget request of refocusing the Navigator Program to fund only core interferometry and related planet-finding science and reducing SIM to a development progr a m,” appropriators wrote in a report accompanying the bill. “With the funds provided, NASA is to begin the development phase of the program to capitalize on more than [$300 million] already invested by the Agency.”

The report also requests a detailed timeline for the development of the Terrestrial Planet Finder mission, another long-proposed project NASA has put off indefinitely.

Work on SIM is led by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. and Northrop Grumman Space Technology, of Redondo Beach, Calif.

NASA’s robotic Mars Exploration Program – another effort dominated by JPL – fared better with House appropriators than with their Senate counterparts. The Senate Appropriations Committee cut NASA’s Mars request by $30 million, while the House Appropriations Committee, which has more members from California, including Pasadena-area Democrat Adam Schiff, provided the full $625 million request.

House appropriators also expressed concern about the slow pace at which NASA is moving out on development of advanced radioisotope power systems – essentially plutonium-fueled batteries – that are critical to the kinds of outer planet missions NASA traditionally has relied on JPL to manage. The bill asks the National Research Council to prepare a report by the end of 2008 that assesses the status of U.S. efforts to develop advance power systems and details what is being done to ensure an adequate supply of plutonium-238 into the future. Additionally, the bill would provide $10 million for NASA to study future outer planets missions.

Like Senate appropriators, House lawmakers want to see NASA do more to implement the recommendations of a National Research Council report released earlier this year laying out a 10-year plan for Earth science. The House bill provides $60 million for NASA to begin initial development of the first four of the 15 missions recommended in the so-called decadal survey. The bill does not, however, indicate a specific spending level for Earth science or any of NASA’s other science divisions. But it does direct that research and analysis spending – the money NASA doles out to scientists to sift through the data coming back from spacecraft – would be increased by $60 million.

House appropriators were more supportive of aeronautics research, recommending $700 million for the effort, $146 million above NASA’s request.

Following the Senate’s lead, House appropriators honored NASA’s $3.9 billion request for Exploration Systems, but declared no sympathy for NASA’s complaints about budget shortfalls that likely will prevent it from fielding the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and it Ares 1 launcher before March 2015.

The appropriators pointed out that NASA Administrator Mike Griffin testified earlier this year that the $600 million shortfall that will be the result of Congress’ decision last year to provide flat funding for the agency in 2007 won’t fully take effect until 2009 and 2010. That it is “fully within the power of the Administration to request sufficient funds” for 2009 and 2010 to prevent Orion’s schedule slip, House appropriators wrote in their report.

Space Operations, the part of NASA’s budget that pays for the space shuttle, international space station and buying rides on expendable rockets, had its nearly $6.9 billion request reduced by $100 million in the House bill. While that is still $545 million more than NASA had to work with this year, it would reduce what NASA has to spend next year on a couple of priorities.

Specifically, the House bill would provide only $65 million of the $150 million NASA requested to begin the replenishment of its Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System. Other reductions include $18 million from the international space station program’s reserves and $2 million from the space station crew and cargo services budget, which funds both the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program and NASA’s purchase of Russian Progress and Soyuz flights.

House appropriators also took a different direction this year on earmarks. Rather than funneling hundreds of millions of dollars back to lawmaker’s districts in the form of site-specific projects, the bill carves just $20 million out of NASA’s education budget for science museums, planetariums and other local education projects leaving it to NASA to select the specific recipients through a competitive process. Senate appropriators, in contrast, took the traditional approach, adding scores of site-specific earmarks totaling more than $60 million.