House Approps Subcommittee Recommends Deep Cut for NASA, Terminate JWST

House Approps Subcommittee Recommends Deep Cut for NASA, Terminate JWST

The House Appropriations Committee today released the draft bill for FY2012 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations that will be marked up at subcommittee level tomorrow. The CJS bill includes NASA and NOAA, and the recommended budget is not good news for NASA.

According to the committee’s press release, the subcommittee wants to terminate the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) because it is “billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management.”

In total, NASA would be funded at $16.8 billion, $1.638 billion less than what it received for FY2011, and $1.914 billion less than the request.

In these austere budget times, a cut to the request was widely expected, but not to this extent. Republicans are seeking to reduce federal spending to FY2008 levels, but this would be even less than what NASA received that year ($17.3 billion).

In the draft bill that also was posted to the committee’s website, the subcommittee recommends that not less than $1.063 billion be spent in FY2012 on the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) and not less than $1.985 billion on the Space Launch System (SLS, or heavy lift launch vehicle) “which shall have a lift capability not less than 130 tons and which shall have an upper stage and other core elements developed simultaneously.” Both figures are increases above the NASA request of $916.3 million for the MPCV and $1.690 billion for the SLS. However, the total amount for the Exploration account that includes those systems would be cut by $300 million from the request: from $3.949 billion to $3.649 billion. That means Exploration would have to find an additional $147 million for MPCV and an additional $295 million for SLS while cutting its total budget by $300 million.

The recommendations are just the opening salvo in what is expected to be a long and drawn out battle. The draft bill will be marked up at subcommittee level tomorrow and by the full committee on July 13. The bill can be amended at either of those meetings, as well as on the floor when the bill is debated by the full House. The Senate also must act on the bill, and Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who chairs the Senate CJS appropriations subcommittee, has been a determined supporter of JWST. Even she was taken aback by the cost overruns announced last year, however, and demanded an independent review of the program. That review, chaired by JPL’s John Casani, blamed poor NASA management, not technical issues. The project is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor. In response to the Casani report, NASA changed how the project is managed at Goddard and overseen at NASA Headquarters. It was separated from the rest of the astrophysics program and now has its own line in the NASA budget request; the request is $373.7 million for FY2012. Recent rumors have been that JWST would not launch earlier than 2018 and might slip as far as 2023. Last year at this time, the launch date was scheduled for 2013. The subcommittee recommendation now adds the possibility that it might never be launched.

As for the MPCV and SLS issues, NASA already announced that the Orion capsule will serve as the MPCV, but Congress continues to await NASA’s overdue announcement of what design it has chosen for the SLS and the associated costs. Rumors have swirled for weeks that an announcement will be made before the final shuttle launch on Friday, but officially Administrator Bolden has said only that it will be sometime this summer. The report was supposed to be issued in January, but only an interim report was provided.

The 2010 NASA Authorization Act (P.L. 111-267) lays out the direction for the U.S. human spaceflight program; a compromise between what the Obama Administration proposed and what Congress wanted. The difference is largely the extent to which the United State should rely upon commercial providers to take astronauts to and from low Earth orbit (LEO) where the International Space Station is located, called “commercial crew,” and what systems should be developed by NASA itself as a backup to the commercial systems, but primarily to take astronauts beyond LEO to destinations such as asteroids. The commercial crew program relies on NASA funding to help the companies develop their systems. The law tells NASA to do both — spend money on its own system as well as provide funds to the commercial companies, but Congress and the Administration disagree on where the emphasis should be in this budget constrained envrionment. Congress wants to focus on a NASA-developed system; the Obama Administration wants to focus on commercial crew. For the past several months, Congress has made clear that it feels NASA is thwarting the intent of Congress in the Act by requesting more money for commercial crew and less for the NASA-developed system for FY2012 than was authorized in the law.

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