House Appropriators Propose Big Increase for Europa, SLS, Cut to Commercial Crew-UPDATE

House Appropriators Propose Big Increase for Europa, SLS, Cut to Commercial Crew-UPDATE

UPDATE, MAY 14, 2015:  The subcommittee approved the draft bill today on a voice vote with no amendments.  The next step is full committee markup.  No date was announced.

ORIGINAL STORY, MAY 13, 2015: The House Appropriations Committee today released the draft FY2016 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill that will be marked up at subcommittee level on Thursday.  It recommends the same total budget level for NASA as the President requested, but allocates the funding differently.  Among the changes is a big increase for a robotic mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, a favorite of subcommittee chairman Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) who has led successful efforts to add money for it in the past.  The Space Launch System (SLS) also gets a boost, including funds for an “enhanced” upper stage, while the commercial crew program is funded below the request.

The President is requesting $18.529 billion for NASA in FY2016 and that is the same as the subcommittee’s recommendation, so any additions or reductions recommended in the bill take place in a zero-sum context — if money is added for one activity, other activities suffer the consequences.

For example, the request includes only $30 million for a Europa mission. The bill allocates $140 million and specifies that it be launched by 2022 using NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), which is still in development.  In addition to that funding in the Science portion of NASA’s budget, it specifies that $25 million of the $625 million recommended for Space Technology be spent on icy satellites surface technology and test beds.  Europa is one of those icy satellites (or “icy moons”) — a moon orbiting another planet in the solar system that is covered by ice.  NASA’s current plan for a Europa mission is for an orbiter, but advocates are pushing for a lander as well. 

NASA officials do not see a funding path that permits a Europa launch before the mid-2020s, but the subcommittee clearly has other ideas.  Where the money will come from elsewhere in NASA’s budget is not apparent in the bill.

The total amount recommended for Science in the draft bill is $5.237 billion, a $51 million cut compared to the $5.289 billion request.  Adding in the $110 million increase for Europa, that means other Science programs are absorbing a reduction of $161 million.  The House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee on April 30 approved, on a party-line vote, a 2016-2017 NASA authorization bill (H.R. 2039) that calls for deep cuts to NASA’s earth science program raising concerns that is where appropriators also plan to cut. 

SLS fares very well in the bill.  The Obama Administration proposed cuts to both the SLS rocket and the Orion spacecraft.  SLS and Orion are priorities for both Republicans and Democrats in Congress and the Administration’s decision to propose reductions heightens a long standing tension between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.  The NASA authorization bill approved by House SS&T would restore both SLS and Orion to their current funding levels, but the draft appropriations bill favors SLS over Orion.  In the draft bill, Orion would get the same as the Administration proposed for this year ($1.096 billion instead of its current $1.194 billion), but SLS would get a hefty increase.  For  development, SLS would get $1.85 billion.  The request is $1.36 billion and its current funding is $1.7 billion.  The draft appropriations bill makes the SLS amount look even larger by combining the funds for development and ground systems ($410 million, the same as the request), plus a new category of “program integration” funds at $53 million for FY2016.  That yields a total of $2.313 billion, which would compare with $1.766 billion in the request if the same accounts are combined.

The $1.85 billion for SLS development includes $50 million for an “enhanced” upper stage.  Many of the payloads expected to be launched by SLS require a large upper stage — often called the “exploration upper stage” or EUS — but NASA does not have the funds to build it now.  Instead it is developing a less capable interim upper stage for early SLS flights, but advocates think it would be more cost effective to move directly to the EUS.  The subcommittee apparently agrees.

The commercial crew program, by contrast, would get $1.00 billion compared to the $1.24 billion request.  That is still a significant increase over the $805 million provided for FY2015, but NASA insists that anything less than the request could mean renegotiating the fixed price contracts with SpaceX and Boeing.

A fact sheet provides a breakdown of what is proposed in the draft appropriations bill compared with the request, and a separate table shows what the House SS&T committee recommended in its authorization bill.


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