WASHINGTON — Though most noteworthy for its denial of funding for the flagship James Webb Space Telescope mission, the 2012 NASA spending bill now awaiting consideration on the House floor also takes a big bite out of the agency’s request for nurturing commercially operated astronaut taxi services to the international space station.

The 2012 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Bill, approved by the House Appropriations Committee July 13, provides a total of $16.8 billion for NASA, $1.6 billion less than 2011 and $1.9 billion below President Barack Obama’s 2012 request. In addition to the Webb telescope and commercial spaceflight, NASA’s request for technology development was significantly trimmed in a bill that manages to add funding for a heavy-lift rocket that Congress directed the agency to build last year.

According to the report accompanying the bill, lawmakers for the most part are leaving it to NASA to decide how the funds appropriated for broad spending accounts will be allocated among individual programs. Appropriators usually take it upon themselves to make these line-item funding decisions.

“Rather than including a detailed table showing the recommended levels for each individual project and activity proposed in the budget request, the Committee has chosen to provide a table that focuses more generally at the theme and program level with a limited amount of additional detail,” the subcommittee wrote in its report. “This will permit NASA some discretion to allocate available funds according to the most urgent priorities and needs.”

The subcommittee directed NASA to provide details about its choices in the spending plan the agency will submit to Congress once the appropriations process is complete.

The committee was nevertheless specific with respect to key programs managed by NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, which would receive $3.69 billion in 2012, $300 million less than the president requested. Commercial crew development activities would get $312 million, the same as was appropriated for this year but substantially less than the $850 million the White House requested.

“The sizable increase in the budget request … was premature given the still-undefined acquisition strategy for the Commercial Crew Development Round 3 (CCDev 3) awards and the uncertainty behind assumptions about pricing, schedule, market demand, flight opportunities and other economic factors that are essentially unknowable at this time,” the subcommittee said in its report.

Two amendments offered July 13 would have restored a portion of the commercial crew funds that the agency wanted. Both amendments, one from Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Penn.) and one from Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) failed to pass.

The bill also provides $1.95 billion for the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) and $1.06 billion for the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). Those are the two components of the deep space exploration system Congress ordered NASA to build last year.

The report warned that funds appropriated for the SLS and the MPCV are intended for design and development only, and not for covering incidental expenses imposed by the craft on NASA’s “civil service oversight, program integration, ground operations and mission operations.”

“In order to facilitate the Committee’s oversight of NASA’s ‘taxation’ of the MPCV and SLS budgets for those related expenses, NASA’s spending plan should clearly itemize all costs under both the MPCV and SLS programs that are not directly tied to actual vehicle design and development and provide a justification for why those expenses cannot be addressed elsewhere or deferred,” the report said.

The bill provides $289 million for exploration-related technology development programs, a $500,000 boost compared with the White House request.

Meanwhile, NASA’s Science Missions Directorate absorbed about a quarter of the cuts proposed for the agency, relative to the president’s request. Science would get $4.5 billion, relatively flat compared with 2011 and less than the $5.02 billion requested for 2012. That includes $1.7 billion for Earth science, $1.5 billion for planetary science, $643 million for astrophysics and $622 million for heliophysics.

The Space Operations Directorate would get $4.05 billion, including $548 million to wind down the space shuttle program, $2.8 billion for the international space station, and $749 million for space and flight support.

Among the report’s other specifics:

  • $4 million of NASA’s Outer Planets Flagship budget is set aside “to conduct the necessary descoping studies” for the Jupiter Europa Orbiter and Mars sample-return mission. Unless NASA can show Congress that it has come up with an “acceptably descoped” flagship, the remaining $39 million included in the bill for an outer planets flagship should be reprogrammed to support other planetary science priorities, it says.
  • Exploration Systems Mission Directorate is directed to delay the start of a robotic precursor program for another year.
  • Earth science is reduced by $100 million relative to the request. At the same time, the report urges NASA “to protect, to the extent possible, high priority missions” including IceSat-2, the Soil Moisture Active-Passive mission, the Deformation, Ecosystem Structure and Dynamics of Ice mission as well as missions nearly ready to launch. “While the Committee supports Earth Science functions, this area has rapidly grown over the past few fiscal years, and the current constrained fiscal environment simply cannot sustain the spending patterns envisioned by NASA in this field,” it says.


NASA Budget Bill Goes to House Floor Without Money for Webb: Lawmakers Hint at Possible Deal To Save JWST

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.