NASA Budget: New Year, Same Old Senate (and House)

By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

The U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and related agencies (CJS) has finished marking up the FY 2013 budget. Looks like much of the same, with money ladled on massively expensive programs and a $305 million reduction in the President’s request for commercial crew:  [Update: The House has weighed in with its own budget, which does the same thing in a more extreme fashion — see below]

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is funded at $19.4 billion, an increase of $1.6 billion over the fiscal year 2012 enacted level. The large increase results from a reorganization of operational weather satellite procurement from NOAA into NASA. Without the funds for weather satellite procurement, this level represents a $41.5 million cut from the fiscal year 2012 enacted level.

Funding for the development of the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle is $1.2 billion, the same as fiscal year 2012. Heavy lift Space Launch System (SLS) development is funded at $1.5 billion, $21 million less than fiscal year 2012. The bill also provides $244 million for construction needed to build, test, and operate Orion and SLS. Commercial crew development is provided $525 million, an increase of $119 million above fiscal year 2012.

The bill preserves a NASA portfolio balanced among science, aeronautics, technology and human space flight investments.

The bill provides $5 billion for Science which is $69 million less than fiscal year 2012. Within Science, the bill restores $100 million of a proposed cut to robotic Mars science programs, resulting in a total of $461 million for Mars robotic science.

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver has already weighed in:

NASA remains committed to preserving competition in its commercial crew initiative even if Congress does not provide the full $830 million requested for the effort in 2012, a senior agency official said.

Speaking with reporters April 16 here at the 28th National Space Symposium, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said the agency likely would stretch out rather than change its approach to the Commercial Crew Program should it not be fully funded next year. Stretching out the program would extend the time during which NASA is dependent on Russia for crew transport to and from the international space station, she said.

The Senate’s actions make little sense. They’re spending nearly $3 billion on Orion and Space Launch System, which won’t carry crews for nine years, while skimping and saving on commercial crew vehicles that we needed yesterday.

This places NASA in a ridiculous position. If it down selects too quickly, then it loses the benefits of a competitive process. However, stretching out the program only deepens and lengthens our reliance upon the Russians and limits our ability to use a space station that we primarily funded. And by saving money now, the Senate just creates greater costs later as we have to extend Soyuz flights another year.

We’ll see what the House does. That body has been even more hostile to commercial crew than the Senate.

UPDATE: The House Appropriations Committee has weighed in, and as usual the cuts are deeper to the tune of $226 million. There’s also this little gem in the press release:

$3.7 billion for Exploration – $59 million below fiscal year 2012. This includes funding to keep NASA on schedule for upcoming Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and Space Launch System flight milestones and to maintain progress in a reconfigured commercial crew program. [My emphasis]

Reconfigured? It’s not clear what that means, but I’m guessing they want NASA to down select to two companies, or maybe even one. Oh, boy. A House full of lawyers will now dictate what an agencies full of engineers should do.

Specifically, the exploration budget would include $1,024,900,000 for the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and $1,857,000,000 shall be for the Space Launch System (SLS). The $1.8 billion would be split between launch vehicle development ($1,454,200,000) and exploration ground systems ($402,800,0000).

In addition, “funds made available for the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and Space Launch System [under Exploration] are in addition to funds provided for these programs under the ‘’Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration’ heading.” The bill does not specify how much money would be spent from the construction budget, which has $598 million under the House plan.

The amount for commercial crew is not spelled out, which gives you a sense of what priority the House places on this program.

Other highlights from the bill (NASA starts on Page 58):

NASA is funded at $17.6 billion in the bill, which is $226 million below fiscal year 2012 and $138 million below the President’s request. This funding includes:

$4 billion for Space Operations – $249 million below fiscal year 2012. The legislation will continue the closeout of the Space Shuttle program for a savings of $503 million.

 $5.1 billion for NASA Science programs – $5 million above fiscal year 2012. This includes $1.4 billion for planetary science to ensure the continuation of critical research and development programs that were imperiled by the President’s request. This also includes $628 million, as requested, for the James Webb Space Telescope.

$632.5 million for the Space Technology program.

How much the House and Senate bills matter depends on whether Congress is able to pass a budget this year. The betting is that they will wait until after the Presidential election and force NASA — and the rest of the government — to work on a continuing resolution that freezes everything in place.