The House Appropriations committee, led by Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), is skeptical the Air Force's Space Modernization Initiative has been thoroughly vetted.

WASHINGTON — NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Commercial Crew programs would receive budget boosts under a nearly $1 trillion spending measure the U.S. House of Representatives approved March 6 to avert a government shutdown while effectively shielding Republican priorities from across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration.

The Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013 (H.R. 933), approved by a mostly party-line vote of 267 to 151, was introduced March 4 by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) to keep the government running through September. Federal agencies have been funded since Oct. 1 under a six-month stopgap spending bill that expires March 27.

If H.R. 933 becomes law, NASA would still have to absorb the 5 percent budget cut that went into effect March 1 under sequestration. But the bill would also move a total of $381.2 billion from NASA Space Operations and Cross Agency Support accounts into the Exploration account in order to boost SLS and Commercial Crew above their pre-sequestration levels. Both SLS and the privately owned spacecraft being developed under the Commercial Crew program are expected to make their debuts in 2017.

The House proposal — which would boost the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments’ budgets above 2012 levels while leaving the sequester’s 5 percent cut intact for all other agencies — still needs to pass the Senate, where that chamber’s Democratic majority likely would seek changes meant to shield some of its priorities from the $85 billion in cuts required this year by sequestration. 

The White House also has signaled that it wants to see some changes, but said in a March 5 statement of administration policy that it could work with Congress to “refine the legislation.”

If the NASA provisions in H.R. 933 survive the Senate, the SLS program would see its budget rise slightly to just over $2 billion instead of falling below $1.8 billion. These funds cover the heavy-lift rocket’s development at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., support for the program at NASA field centers across the country and SLS ground infrastructure at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, meanwhile, would end up with about $499 million — much less than the $830 million the White House requested for 2013, but more than the $385 million it would get after the 5-percent sequester takes its bite.  Commercial Crew had a $406 million annual appropriation before sequestration. 

Generally, the House and the Senate have both strongly supported SLS, funding the project at or above requested levels. Both chambers have been cautious about the Commercial Crew Program, which even the Senate has yet to fund at the levels the White House has requested.

In appropriations bills derailed last year by a highly charged U.S. presidential election, Senate appropriators agreed to give the Commercial Crew program $525 million — a level that House appropriators later said they would also support.

“Basically, the numbers [in Rogers’ bill] reflect where we wanted to get, had we finished conferencing with the Senate last year” a House aide said March 4.

Despite the House’s plan to shore up U.S. human spaceflight programs after the sequester, the phase-in of these automatic budget cuts prompted Beth Robinson, NASA’s chief financial officer, to put contractors and other NASA funding recipients on notice that their agreements with the agency might soon be revisited.

“[B]ased on our initial analysis, it is possible that your contract, grant, cooperative agreement or Space Act agreement may be affected” by sequestration, Robinson wrote in a March 4 letter.

Without saying when it might happen, Robinson told contractors they would be contacted by NASA officials with more details.


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Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...