When NASA announced the completion of the Space Launch System's critical design review Oct. 22, it also released an updated illustration of the rocket, with the core stage now orange instead of white. NASA said in a press release that orange is "the natural color of the insulation that will cover those elements," as was the case with the shuttle's external tank. Not explained in the release, those, are the curved gray and orange stripes on the solid rocket boosters. Some think they are intended to evoke memories of the shuttle itself or the logo of original shuttle contractor Rockwell International — or, perhaps, computer game company Atari. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — A fiscal year 2017 spending bill approved by a Senate appropriations subcommittee April 19 would give NASA $19.3 billion, nearly the same as 2016 but with a significant increase for the agency’s Space Launch System program.

The overall NASA funding in the commerce, justice and science (CJS) bill is $21 million above what the agency received in 2016. It is also $275 million above the administration’s overall request for NASA, which used a combination of discretionary and mandatory funds to get around spending caps, a maneuver this bill does not adopt.

“The bill before us funds NASA at $19.3 billion, preserving the funding Congress provided in 2016,” said subcommittee chairman Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) at the brief, uncontentious markup session for the bill. “This level makes it possible for the agency to continue supporting ongoing science and exploration missions, especially the Space Launch System and Orion capsule development.”

SLS is the big winner in the bill, according to a summary of its contents provided by the committee. The heavy-lift launch vehicle would get $2.15 billion, $150 million more than it received in 2016 and $840 million above the administration’s request. The SLS funding includes $300 million directed for work on the Exploration Upper Stage with the goal of having it ready as soon as 2021, the earliest planned date for the first crewed SLS/Orion mission.

The bill also provides $1.3 billion for Orion, $30 million above 2016 and $180 million above the administration’s request. It also directs Orion to be ready for its first crewed mission in 2021.

The bill provides $5.4 billion for science programs overall, $200 million below the request. The summary does not break out spending among the various science mission directorates. Commercial crew would get $1.18 billion, the amount requested by NASA, and space technology would get $687 million, the same as 2016 but $140 million less than requested.

“NASA can have a robust, balanced space program,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), ranking member of both the CJS subcommittee and full appropriations committee. “Yes, human space exploration. Indeed, a reliable space transportation system. But we also looked out for space, planetary and Earth science and aeronautics.”

Shelby, in his opening remarks, was particularly critical of the administration’s proposal to cover part of the $19 billion request with mandatory funding, part of a broader effort to get around spending limits on discretionary agencies like NASA. $763 million of the request used mandatory funding, which led Shelby to claim that the White House was really only requesting less than $18.3 billion for NASA.

“The budget request that NASA presented to Congress includes, I believe, a disingenuous combination of discretionary spending and an unprecedented amount of funding disguised as mandatory spending,” Shelby said, arguing that the request really cut NASA’s budget by $1 billion. “These cuts, if enacted, would erode ongoing science missions, jeopardize core operations and delay exploration launches.”

The full Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to take up the bill April 21. House appropriators have yet to mark up their version of the CJS spending bill, but the chairman of that subcommittee was optimistic about what he would be able to provide for NASA.

“The NASA number is one that we’re all going to be excited and proud of,” said Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) in comments at an April 19 Space Transportation Association luncheon. He added that he expected some variations with the Senate’s bill. “I expect it to be lower in some areas and higher in others.”

Culberson also said that he expected an appropriations bill of some kind to pass, although the federal government will likely begin the 2017 fiscal year Oct. 1 on a short-term continuing resolution, as it has in most years in recent memory. “I am confident that we are going to a bill ultimately done,” he said.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...