Senate Appropriators Approve $19.3 Billion for NASA for FY2017

Senate Appropriators Approve $19.3 Billion for NASA for FY2017

The Senate Appropriations Committee today approved $19.306 billion for NASA in FY2017, a $21 million increase over its FY2016 level of $19.285 billion, in its Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill. The Space Launch System (SLS) and its Enhanced Upper Stage (EUS), the Orion spacecraft, commercial crew, and most of the space and earth science portfolio (except for planetary science) fared well.  Aeronautics. space technology, and most of space operations held their own.

Describing the Senate committee’s action is a challenge this year.  Typically, comparisons are made between what the Administration requests and what Congress approves.  For FY2017, however, the Administration used a unique approach where part of the money requested ($18.262 billion) is from appropriated funds in the discretionary portion of the federal budget — the part of the federal budget that has always funded NASA; another portion ($663 million) is from mandatory spending, which funds entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security; and the remainder ($100 million) is from a tax the Administration proposed to levy on oil companies for a clean transportation initiative.

NASA displays its budget request as the combination of the three — $19.025 billion — and breaks down the request for individual accounts like science, aeronautics, and space technology accordingly.  The $100 million from the oil company tax was designated entirely for aeronautics, for example, so NASA’s budget chart shows the aeronautics request as $790.4 million, a sharp increase from the $640 million appropriated for the current year.

Congress summarily rejected the Administration’s notion of taxing the oil companies, however, and appropriations committees have no authority over mandatory spending.  From the Senate Appropriations Committee’s standpoint, therefore, the request was $18.262 billion.  Throughout its report, the committee compares what it approved to that figure, not to the $19.025 billion that NASA displays.  It therefore is very important to exercise care when reading the committee’s report because it may say that it provided more or less than “the request,” but that may not be obvious looking at NASA’s budget presentation.

The following discussion compares the Senate committee’s actions as shown in its report (S. Rept. 114-239 to accompany S. 2837) to current spending instead of to the request because of the ambiguity.

SLS does very well.  It is being built in Alabama, the home state of Sen. Richard Shelby, who chairs the CJS subcommittee.  The committee approved $2.150 billion, an increase of $150 million over FY2016.  Of that amount, $300 million is designated for EUS.   Alternately called the Exploration Upper Stage or Enhanced Upper Stage, it is needed for SLS flights that will launch crews aboard the Orion spacecraft.  The first SLS mission, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), will be a test of an unoccupied Orion and the EUS is not needed for that.  The second mission, EM-2, will carry a crew, but NASA has been planning  to use an interim upper stage (Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage) for that mission and then build the EUS for EM-3 and beyond.   EUS advocates argue that spending money to human-rate the interim stage for one mission is wasteful.  They want to get EUS ready for EM-2 and so far Congress has agreed.  The Senate committee also added a small amount of money ($30 million) for Orion compared to current spending, a total of $1.3 billion.

The commercial crew program, for years the source of strong debate between the Administration and Congress, seems to have turned a page.  The committee approved $1,184.8 million, slightly less than current spending, but in this case it is a planned reduction since the program has passed its peak funding phase.

The science budget overall is $194 million less than current spending.  Funding for the James Webb Space Telescope is lower than FY2016 ($569.4 million versus $620.0 million), but, like commercial crew, it is a planned reduction.  Earth science is slightly higher than current funding ($1,984 million compared to $1,921 million in FY2016) and includes $130 million for Landsat 9, with launch in 2020.  Planetary science suffers the biggest reduction in this account — a $275 million cut from $1,631 million currently to $1,356 million.   The committee expresses support for the mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa that is a favorite of House CJS subcommittee chairman Rep. John Culberson, but does not specify how much funding is provided.  It is widely expected that the House Appropriations Committee will include significant Europa funding and the two committees will reach agreement in conference.

Space technology is level-funded at $686.5 million (compared to FY2016) and the committee specifies that $130 million of that is for the RESTORE-L satellite servicing technology development program that was shifted into space technology from space operations last year.  Aeronautics would receive $601 million, $39 million less than FY2016.

A fact sheet provides additional information and tables explaining more of the committee’s actions.

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