WASHINGTON — A Senate panel approved a $19 billion NASA budget July 21 that would cut in half the U.S. space agency’s 2011 request for a new commercial crew initiative while pumping an unsought $3 billion into continued development of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and a heavy-lift rocket needed to launch it into deep space.
“The bill restructures NASA’s human spaceflight programs, providing for a new heavy-lift launch vehicle and crew capsule for exploring beyond low-Earth orbit,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the veteran lawmaker who chairs the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee that introduced and approved the spending bill during a short legislative markup session July 21.
The NASA funding measure is part of a broader $60 billion spending bill that also funds the Commerce and Justice departments. The full Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to take up the bill July 22.
Mikulski said the bill funds “a restructured, very neatly crafted balanced space program” that would invest in space technology research, continue flying the international space station through 2020 and fund one additional space shuttle flight provided an independent body determines it to be safe.
Details of the spending package were not made available during the mark-up, though subcommittee staff members said afterward the measure fully funds NASA’s $312 million request for its Commercial Orbital Space Transportation (COTS) program next year but provides only half of the $500 million the agency is seeking for a new program meant to foster development of commercial crew taxis capable of ferrying astronauts to the international space station.
The bill also includes $1.9 billion to initiate development of a new heavy-lift launch vehicle in 2011, a significant departure from U.S. President Barack Obama’s proposal to wait until 2015 to settle on a design for the nation’s next heavy lifter and start building it. Under the budget plan the president sent Congress in February, NASA would invest $3 billion in heavy lift research and other propulsion technologies over the next five years, starting with $560 million in 2011.
The spending bill approved July 21 by the subcommittee also includes $1.1 billion for Orion, the Lockheed Martin-designed crew capsule Obama initially sought to cancel along with the rest of NASA’s Constellation program but which won a partial reprieve in April when the president directed NASA to use the Orion design as the basis for a space station crew lifeboat.
Senate aides said the appropriations bill largely supports the overall framework of NASA authorizing legislation adopted July 15 by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, including funding for the additional space shuttle flight next year. Mikulski said she worked closely with Senate authorizers and her subcommittee’s ranking member, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), in drafting it.
Shelby, a staunch opponent of Obama’s plan to abandon Constellation despite the nearly $10 billion invested in it to date, said the subcommittee’s spending bill would alter the president’s plan for the human spaceflight program.
“It changes some of the direction that the president would recommend that we go with the heavy lift thing for the future,” Shelby told reporters following the mark-up. “It gives us hope, but at the end of the day I think NASA is going to have to show a lot of vision where they want to go and how we’re going to get there, and then we’ve got to consider how we’re going to fund it.”
Mikulski said the bill supports NASA’s $2.78 billion request for space station operations and provides $1.6 billion for the space shuttle, or roughly $600 million more than the agency requested. Another $904 million is included for aeronautics and space technology research, an amount Senate aides said includes $579.6 million for aeronautics and $325 million for space technology research.
During the markup session, Mikulski said the bill seeks to “protect astronaut safety” and address “worker dislocation,” a reference to the plight of NASA aerospace workers expected to lose their jobs when the agency retires its fleet of space shuttle orbiters next year.
She also said the bill would “deal with contract termination in a wise and prudent way,” referring to NASA’s approach to budgeting for Constellation contract termination reserves needed to cover industry costs associated with canceling orders, vacating leases and pink-slipping employees if the program is shutdown.
The bill also fully funds NASA’s $5 billion request for science programs, including $448 million for the James Webb Space Telescope, a next-generation flagship astronomy mission that is costing NASA more than expected.
“We have fully funded James Webb but we’ve put them on notice to get themselves in discipline,” Mikulski said following the meeting. “I will not tolerate the kind of cost overruns that just leached all over our bill with [the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System] (NPOESS), because the NPOESS created significant problems. We like the concept of the Webb, but we’re not in the overrun business. This committee is really going to be tough on that.”