NASA Administrator Charles Bolden testifies before the Senate Appropriations Committee's commerce, justice and science subcommittee on March 10. Credit: Senate webcast

WASHINGTON — At the final hearing involving one of NASA’s biggest congressional patrons, Senate appropriators criticized the use of accounting “gimmicks” to help fund NASA’s 2017 budget request.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice and science (CJS) subcommittee, said March 10 he was disappointed in the $19 billion budget request that he feels does not adequately fund some NASA priorities, including the Space Launch System.

Shelby said he had hoped NASA would build upon the final 2016 omnibus spending bill, which provided nearly $19.3 billion for NASA, including significant increases over the administration’s request for SLS and Orion. “But I think that hope was short-lived,” he said.

Shelby was particularly critical of an Obama administration strategy to get around caps on discretionary federal spending in the latest budget deal by making use of so-called “mandatory” program funding from elsewhere in the budget, offset by cuts or tax increases elsewhere. In the case of NASA, $763 million of its request of $19.025 billion uses mandatory funding.

“The administration prioritized funding elsewhere in the government’s budget and they could not find enough discretionary funding to make NASA whole,” Shelby said. “In order to move forward in 2017, the subcommittee, I believe, must set aside those so-called mandatory spending gimmicks.”

The subcommittee’s ranking member, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), also questioned the use of mandatory funding, in part because of the impression the term leaves. “It sounds like it’s mandatory for the folks back home who don’t understand Washington-speak and budget lingo,” she said.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said that decisions on whether and how to use mandatory funds were made at a higher level in the administration. “From where I sit, we’re requesting a $19 billion budget,” he said. “I leave it up to the budgeteers to determine where all the money comes from.”

Shelby also used the hearing to discuss another issue he has been at the heart of the debate about: the continued use of the Russian-built RD-180 engine. Shelby asked Bolden what the effect of a “comprehensive engine ban” would be on NASA, a major customer of the Atlas 5 rocket that uses the RD-180.

Bolden said his thinking on the subject is in “lockstep” with Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James. “She and I both agree that, while we want to rid ourselves of dependence on Russian rocket engines, it should be done in an orderly fashion,” he said.

The hearing, though, featured far less debate about NASA’s budget request than in previous years. Lasting less than a hour, it had more of a celebratory air as it was the last CJS hearing planned this year, and thus the last featuring Mikulski, who is retiring after this year.

“I didn’t know a lot about NASA” when joining the appropriations committee in 1987, she acknowledged. She credited another member of the committee at the time, Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah), who flew on a shuttle mission, for educating her about NASA.

“Between him and John Glenn, I learned so much about the American space program and what it took to be great,” said Mikulski, who became one of the agency’s biggest advocates in Congress.

Bolden hinted that this hearing may have been the last time he appears before this committee as well. “As we submit what is likely my final budget,” he said in his opening remarks, suggesting he does not expect to be in office beyond the end of the Obama administration next January.

Bolden, however, is not done testifying before Congress. He is scheduled to appear at hearings of the House Appropriations CJS subcommittee March 15, and the House Science space subcommittee March 17, to discuss the agency’s budget request.

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...