WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) told NASA Administrator Charles Bolden she would back a funding boost for commercial crew next year as long as the additional money comes from outside the Space Launch System (SLS) budget and preferably from outside the agency itself.

“I would be for increasing the commercial, but I want the president to suggest where we get it; and I want to make sure that it’s not from the SLS,” Hutchison said Nov. 18 during a Senate Commerce space and aeronautics subcommittee hearing on NASA’s human spaceflight program.

Hutchison, whose state is home to NASA’s lead center for manned missions, is fiercely protective of SLS, the heavy-lift rocket program that owes its existence to legislation she championed last year.

She has been less supportive of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, telling agency officials earlier this year that the $850 million they were seeking for the effort to foster development of private space taxis was too much.

Hutchison, top Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Technology Committee and a senior appropriator, had a big hand in drafting the NASA portion of the compromise spending bill that cleared Congress Nov. 17. That bill, which President Barack Obama signed into law the next day, will fund commercial crew at $406 million for 2012 — less than half of what NASA requested — while providing the full $1.8 billion the agency sought for SLS.

Hutchison made clear she wants to see the president’s future budget proposals fund SLS above $1.8 billion, pressing Bolden to ask the White House to revisit NASA’s still-embargoed 2013 spending request to add more money for the program.

Bolden would not discuss the president’s 2013 budget proposal since it is not due to go to Congress until February. But he did tell Hutchison that NASA would abide by its commitment to conduct the first SLS launch in 2017 and fly it again in 2021 on its first manned mission.

“We will do what is necessary in terms of the allocation of funds so that we do not back off from our commitment,” Bolden said. “We are going to live up to the agreement we made to sufficiently fund a system — a Space Launch System and a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle — that will enable us to launch a test flight in 2017 … and a crewed flight in 2021.”

While Bolden assured Hutchison that SLS would be adequately funded, he warned the subcommittee that the private services NASA is counting on to ferry astronauts to the international space station would be delayed by the Commercial Crew Program’s funding shortfall.

Bolden said the $850 million the agency requested for the program would have enabled commercial crew flights to begin around 2016. Cutting that amount back to $500 million — the level Congress authorized last year — would delay initial capability to 2017, he said.

Bolden, who testified before the subcommittee as U.S. lawmakers were preparing to give final passage to the NASA spending bill, did not say how the Commercial Crew Program would fare with less than $500 million next year.

Sen. Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, said he would like to see commercial crew get more than the $406 million included in the 2012 bill. “Next year, we are all going to have to realize that if we want to lessen the time we want for commercial crew to be going to and from the space station, that number is going to have to be addressed,” Nelson said.

Hutchison suggested that additional money for the Commercial Crew Program could be taken from science agencies other than NASA. Hutchison did not identify any specific targets. As ranking member of the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, Hutchison helps draft annual spending legislation for several federal science agencies, including NASA, the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.



Senators Urge Action on NASA Heavy Lift


Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.