NASA Faces Budget Cuts in House and Senate Spending Bills

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SAN FRANCISCO — If congressional spending plans approved April 19 by U.S. House and Senate appropriators become law, NASA’s top line would be reduced slightly and the agency’s commercial crew initiative would be scaled back.

On April 19, the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee approved a plan to set NASA’s 2013 budget at $17.6 billion, $226 million less than Congress approved for the agency in 2012. On the same day, the Senate Appropriations Committee adopted a plan drafted by members of its commerce, justice, science subcommittee to give the space agency $19.4 billion in 2013, including approximately $1.6 billion to take over responsibility from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for funding the acquisition of civilian weather satellites. Without that additional weather satellite funding, the Senate bill would provide NASA with $41.5 million less than the 2012 budget.

In the spending plans, House and Senate lawmakers expressed strong support for NASA’s effort to develop the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS). The Senate Appropriations legislation would keep Orion funding at the current level of $1.2 billion and provide $1.5 billion for SLS, $21 million less than the program is slated to receive in 2012. The House Appropriations commerce, justice and science subcommittee markup, which still must be approved by the House Appropriations Committee, would provide $1 billion for Orion and $1.9 billion to support SLS development. The text of the House bill directs NASA to ensure that the rocket can lift “not less than 130 metric tons” and “have an upper stage and other core elements developed simultaneously.”

The House and Senate bills include far less money than the $830 million the White House requested in its 2013 budget blueprint for NASA’s high-priority Commercial Crew Program, which currently funds four firms working under Space Act Agreements to develop taxis capable of transporting astronauts to and from the international space station. The House bill includes $500 million for that effort and calls on NASA “to winnow the commercial partners and advance the schedule for moving to traditional government procurement methods,” according to a statement released April 19 by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House panel.

Legislation approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee would give the space agency $525 million for the Commercial Crew Program without stipulating how the program should be structured. During an April 17 legislative session to markup the bill, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, called on NASA to avoid wasting money by paying “more than two different private companies” to develop the spacecraft. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who chairs the Senate panel, said Hutchinson was expressing a personal view and that the Senate panel would let NASA decide how to manage the program.

The House and Senate bills would provide more funding for NASA’s planetary science program than the White House requested. In its budget blueprint sent to Congress in February, the White House proposed reducing funding for NASA’s Planetary Science Division from $1.5 billion in 2012 to less than $1.2 billion in 2013.

The House bill includes $1.4 billion for planetary science, including $150 million for Mars Next Decade, an integrated Mars exploration strategy designed to address scientific and human spaceflight goals. The House directs NASA to make sure the Mars Next Decade program includes a sample-return mission with the National Research Council’s stamp of approval. If the National Research Council determines, however, that NASA’s proposed sample-return mission will not succeed, the money should be used instead for exploration of Jupiter’s moon Europa, the bill states.

The Senate plan includes $5 billion for NASA’s overall science program, including $1.3 billion for planetary sciences. Mars exploration would get $461 million, about $100 million over the request.

One Senate provision that does not appear in the House bill is the plan to put NASA in charge of purchasing NOAA’s next-generation Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites, Joint Polar Satellite System and Jason-3 ocean altimetry mission.

NASA already manages civilian weather satellite acquisition on behalf of NOAA, but uses NOAA money to fund oversight and construction of the satellites.

“We have said time and time and time again to NOAA, ‘Get your act together,’” Mikulski told lawmakers during the April 17 markup. Satellite program cost overruns are “eating up the NOAA budget and, quite frankly, the goodwill of this committee.

By moving responsibility for purchasing weather satellites from NOAA to NASA, the government can save more than $100 million a year, Mikulski said. In 2013, the move would save $117 million, Mikulski said in a statement released April 17. NOAA would continue to operate the weather satellites.

The House bill would set NOAA’s 2013 budget at $5 billion, $68 million above the agency’s 2012 budget and $93 million below the White House’s request. The House bill would give NOAA $916 million for the Joint Polar Satellite System, the full amount requested. After transferring NOAA satellite procurement funding to NASA, the Senate bill would give NOAA $3.4 billion in 2013, $1.47 billion less than the agency’s 2012 budget.

Both the House and Senate spending bills include $628 million for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, as the White House requested.