NASA 2012 Budget Funds JWST, Halves Commercial Spaceflight

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WASHINGTON — NASA will get $17.8 billion for 2012 under a compromise budget that increases funding for the troubled James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) astronomy flagship but provides less than half of what the agency sought for its commercial spaceflight program.

The NASA funding was part of a $1 trillion measure signed into law Nov. 18 by U.S. President Barack Obama that funds several agencies for the remainder of the 2012 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. NASA’s 2012 top line is $684 million below the agency’s 2011 level and $924 million less than the White House requested.

The full-year budget for NASA and selected other federal agencies was bundled into must-pass legislation that will keep the remainder of the U.S. government funded at 2011 levels through Dec. 16. The entire government had been operating at 2011 levels under a continuing resolution that was set to expire Nov. 17.

The so-called minibus package combined three previously separate spending bills into one. It was hammered out during a legislative conference of House and Senate appropriators that was convened Nov. 3.

The minibus includes $4.9 billion for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a 7 percent increase over 2011. Some $924 million of that amount is set aside for the Joint Polar Satellite System “to ensure the continuity of critical weather forecast data.” Lawmakers, however, denied that agency’s request for $322 million to establish a new Climate Service.

According to the final conference report, posted Nov. 15 on a congressional website, the $17.8 billion for NASA would break down as follows:

  • $3.8 billion for human space exploration, which is $30 million below the 2011 level.
  • $4.2 billion for space operations, which is $1.3 billion below the 2011 level. That funding account includes the international space station and the space shuttle, which flew its final mission in July.
  • $5.1 billion for science programs, or about $155 million above the 2011 level. This includes $529.6 million for the over budget JWST, which House appropriators had proposed canceling over the summer.

Included in the $3.8 billion for human space exploration is $1.8 billion for the congressionally mandated heavy-lift rocket known as the Space Launch System, and $1.2 billion for its companion spacecraft, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which is fostering development of astronaut taxis for the space station, will get $406 million in 2012, less than half of the $850 million Obama requested and $94 million less than Congress authorized. Moreover, $100 million of the appropriated funds would be withheld until NASA Administrator Charles Bolden provides House and Senate appropriators with written notice that NASA is proceeding with its acquisition of the Space Launch System.

The JWST allocation is $156 million more than the White House requested and consistent with the Senate’s recommendation. The extra money will be offset by cutting back NASA’s request for Earth science, planetary science and other astrophysics programs.

Earth science would get $1.77 billion, $30 million below the request. Planetary science would get $1.5 billion, $40 million below the request. Astrophysics would get $672 million, $10.7 million below the request.

The balance of JWST’s shortfall for 2012 would come out of NASA’s Cross Agency Support account, according to the conference report.

Building and operating the telescope for five years is now expected to cost $8.8 billion. Besides the extra $156 million in 2012, the mission will need $1.05 billion more from 2013 to 2018 than the $375 million a year the White House had budgeted for. NASA has acknowledged that some science programs will have to be delayed in order to secure a 2018 launch for JWST.

The report specified that $581.7 million be set aside in 2012 for NASA’s robotic Mars exploration program. NASA should “continue working to define, plan and execute future Mars missions and continue seeking and taking advantage of opportunities for international cooperation on such missions,” the report said

Planetary scientists over the past month have fretted over the White House’s refusal to commit to a planned a joint Mars sample-collection mission with the European Space Agency. The White House likely will reveal its Mars exploration plans in February, when it releases its 2013 budget request.