Congress’ Budget: A Big Win for Big Rocket

We’re going to take a closer look at the NASA budget that Senate and House conferees approved this week. As will see, Congress cares about little else but heavy-lift and the Orion MPCV when it comes to human spaceflight, commercial crew got slashed, the James Webb Telescope has lived to slip another day, and a crack has opened in the ban on cooperation with China.


Conferee Budget: $17.8 billion

Administration Request: $18.7 billion
Senate Plan:  $17.9 billion
House Plan: $16.8 billion

Editor’s Comment:  The $900 million cut is steep, but overall the budget is not that bad given the overall push to cut the federal deficit. There is a bi-partisan super committee looking at far deeper cuts in federal spending. It’s unclear what, if anything, they will agree on or what impact that could have on NASA’s budget.


Total: $ 3.77 billion
Orion MPCV: $1.2 billion
Space Launch System: $1.86 billion
Commercial Crew: $406 million
Exploration R&D: $304.8 million


  • $100 million of commercial crew funding “shall only be available after the NASA Administrator certifies to the Committees on Appropriations, in writing, that NASA has published the required notifications of NASA contract actions implementing the acquisition strategy for the heavy lift launch vehicle system identified in section 302 of Public Law 111-267 and has begun to execute relevant contract actions in support of development of the heavy lift launch vehicle system.”
  • $316.5 million from SLS may be used for ground operations
  • $58 million may be transferred to “Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration” for construction activities related to the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle and the heavy lift launch vehicle system.

Editor’s Comment:  The low amount being spent on commercial crew (less than half of the $850 million requested) and the restrictions placed on spending show just how little faith Congress has in the program.  Legislators instead opted to spend 81 percent of the Exploration budget SLS and Orion, which might not fly with astronauts for 8 to 10 years. Meanwhile, the low commercial crew funding will likely push those flights ever closer to 2020 from the current 2015-16 schedule.

In addition to being expensive to develop, Orion and SLS require expensive ground infrastructure.  This is good for construction jobs. However, this raises the question of just how much of the $1.9 billion the Administration wants to spend upgrading facilities at Cape Canaveral will be spent on those two programs and not only other, vital priorities that would help foster commercial space programs.


Total: $ 5 .09 billion


  • The formulation and development costs for the James Webb Space Telescope shall not exceed $8 billion
  • $10 million for a reimbursable agreement with the Department of Energy (DOE) for the purpose of re-establishing facilities to produce fuel required for radioisotope thermoelectric generators to enable future planetary missions

Editor’s Comment: JWST lives to slip another day. House members wanted to cancel the telescope for being massively over budget, years behind schedule, and sucking the life out of the rest of NASA’s Science budget. But, with Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski still in power, they never had a chance. As a result, everyone else will have to suck it up and bear the budget cuts and schedule delays this decision will cause.

NASA is running out of nuclear fuel for its deep space missions, and it has not been able to conclude an agreement with Russia to purchase more. Previous attempts to restore funding have faltered when legislators failed to provide funding in the DOE budget to pay for that department’s share of the cost.


Total: $2.995 billion


  • $1 million shall be transferred to “National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Office of Inspector General” and used by the Inspector General to commission a comprehensive independent assessment of NASA’s strategic direction and agency management

Editor’s Comment: Congress has not been happy with NASA’s strategic direction and management, so this assessment seems like an attempt to find things that will justify their anger. I personally think the IG’s Office has better things to do with its time.


Total: $575 million

Editor’s Comment: Although far less than the $1 billion the Obama Administration requested, this budget provides a significantly amount of funds for NASA to conduct work on new technologies. The space agency should be able to make major progress on some of the game changing technologies they want to pursue.

The only negative aspect here is that NASA’s spending more on future technologies than it is on the commercial crew program, which it needs as soon as possible.  I keep thinking that NASA should have asked for $1 billion for commercial crew (instead of $850 million) and pegged the Space Technology budget lower. The commercial crew budget might have settled at a higher level.  I could be wrong, given how skeptical Congress is of commercial crew and its preference for funding SLS and Orion.


  • Space Operations: $4.23 billion
  • Aeronautics: $ 569.9 million
  • Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration: $390 million
  • Education: $ 138.4 million
  • Office of Inspector General: $ 3 7.3 million



(a) None of the funds made available by this Act may be used for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) or the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement, or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company unless such activities are specifically authorized by a law enacted after the date of enactinent of this Act.

(b) The limitation in subsection (a) shall also apply to any funds used to effectuate the hosting of official Chinese visitors at facilities belonging to or utilized by NASA.

(c) The limitations described in subsections (a) and (b) shall not apply to activities which NASA or OSTP have certified pose no risk of resulting in the transfer of technology, data, or other information with national security or economic security implications to China or Chinese-owned company.

(d) Any certification made under subsection (c) shall be submitted to the Committees on Appropriations of the House of Representatives and the Senate no later than 14 days prior to the activity in question and shall include a description of the purpose of the activity, its major participants, and its location and timing.

Editor’s Comment: This measure opens up a crack in the Congressional ban on cooperation with China. The existing law prohibits any and all bi-lateral cooperation by NASA and OSTP without providing for a certification process.

NASA has complied with the current law, stopping all cooperative activities. OSTP has ignored the ban, saying that it is an unconstitutional impingement on the President’s ability to conduct foreign affairs. OSTP is basing this decision on an opinion provided by the Justice Department. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted a review of OSTP’s meetings with the Chinese and sided with Congress.

  • warshawski

    $3 billion for MPCV/SLS which will not fly manned mission before 2018 at the soonest more likely 2021 yet funding for CCDev, which could help Dragon fly as soon as 2014, is cut. Save $400 on development costs in USA next year only to spend $450 million per year for 4 or more extra years in Russia. What a joke.
    Cutting CCDev funding will reduce the availability of affordable access to space that could open up other industries such as tourism but SLS/MPCV due to its high development cost will only ever be used for limited government missions.
    In addition the restructions placed on CCDev funding linked to progress on SLS are pure spite to stop new space from competing with old space.
    If it was a public company the management would go to jail for misappropriation of company funds.

  • JohnHunt

    I think Congress knows that progress for commercial space will make the SLS look bad. So, they not only want SLS funding coming to their districts, they also want so see commercial space fail. But they can’t cut it completely lest their bias be undeniably evident to all.

  • Paul451

    I suppose NASA could use some of the $575m Space Tech budget to pay for some of the CCDev milestones. For example, you could issue a series of research contracts for “life-boat/rescue capsules for the ISS and later SLS missions”, with a stated preference for CCDev “dual-use”.

    The rescue capsule would be a full man-rated reentry capsule. The only difference to CCDev is it would launch empty (hence no LAS.) That cuts the required funding to get to full CCDev. Once you hit full CCDev, you move them to the ISS ops budget to replace the Soyuz seats.


    Necessary Steps :: Funded by.
    Capsule/docking :: COTS
    Lifesupport/Reentry :: “ISS/SLS Rescue Program” via Space Tech budget
    LAS/manned launch :: CCDev

    It’s defensible, because of the recent Soyuz scare. If you need to evacuate the ISS, and it’s winter in central Asia, the Soyuz capsule is dangerous. You need a crash program to develop a backup capsule capable of returning a full six man crew to a safer country.

    Certain corrupt Congressmen will see through the excuse and be angry. But you owe no loyalty to such creatures.