Senate Appropriators Favor Earth Science, Exploration; Cut Space Technology, Commercial Crew

Senate Appropriators Favor Earth Science, Exploration; Cut Space Technology, Commercial Crew

The Senate Appropriations Committee publicly released its report today on the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill that it marked up last week.  Some of the winners and losers were clear already, but the report illustrates less obvious changes resulting, in part, from the committee shifting programs from one account to another.

One example is NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD).   NASA’s request was $725 million.  The Senate committee cut that to $600 million, but it also shifted the Restore-L satellite servicing project from the Space Operations account into Space Technology and specified $150 million for that program alone.  So in addition to cutting the total for space technology activities, a substantial amount is earmarked for a specific project that was not part of that request.

During the April 16, 2015 CJS subcommittee hearing on NASA’s budget request, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) pointedly asked NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden why the request for the satellite servicing technology program at Goddard Space Flight Center (in Maryland) was so low — $65 million compared to the $130 million it received in FY2015.  Bolden asked to speak to her about it privately, while adding that he could not determine who would be the customers for NASA satellite servicing technology since the private sector is already working on those technologies.  Apparently he was not convincing.  The committee allocated $150 million, $20 million more than FY2015, and shifted it from International Space Station (ISS) Research in the Space Operations account into Space Technology.  It further directed NASA not to include any carry-over funds from prior years in the $150 million allocation.   The report states refueling Landsat 7 or another U.S. government satellite is a pathfinder mission and although pathfinder technologies were demonstrated on ISS, it is now time to have a “full-scale stand-alone demonstration which will benefit multiple NASA mission directorates and, therefore, is more appropriately funded within Space Technology” although the program is to be co-managed by STMD and the Science Mission Directorate.

NASA’s Earth science program, which was cut deeply in the House-passed version of the CJS bill, fared very well in the Senate version.  The $1.947 billion request was cut only by $16 million and NASA is directed to accelerate development of the next Landsat satellite, Landsat 9, so that it is ready by 2020 instead of 2023.  The committee denied funding for a Landsat-related free-flying thermal infrared instrument, TIR-FF, NASA wants to build  to ensure there is no gap in providing that type of data, presumably because if Landsat 9 is ready by 2020, the risk of such a gap is minimized.  (For a comparison of the House-passed and Senate committee-approved funding levels, see’s fact sheet on NASA’s FY2016 budget request.)

The Senate committee did not specify additional funds for a planetary mission to Europa, and, in fact, cut the planetary science budget by $40 million.  The House increased planetary science substantially, including adding $110 million to the $30 million requested for Europa.  One place the two do agree is that the Europa mission should be designed to utilize the Space Launch System.

The Senate committee shifted the commercial crew program from Exploration to Space Operations, which makes apples-to-oranges comparisons of the request and committee-approved levels for those accounts more difficult than may appear at first glance.   While Exploration appears to get a deep cut, in fact the SLS program gets a $543.5 million increase compared to the request, of which $100 million is for the Exploration Upper Stage, and Orion gets a $104 million boost compared to the request.  The total for Exploration is less because commercial crew is shifted to Space Operations, where it is cut to $900 million from the $1.244 billion request.   Commercial crew is tasked with developing systems to take crews to and from ISS and the committee said it wanted to consolidate all ISS funding in a single account.

Overall, the Senate committee recommends a $239.6 million cut to NASA’s budget request of $18,529.1 million, approving $18,289.5 million.  To obtain that net reduction, the committee favored science programs, exploration, and education, while reducing aeronautics, space technology, and NASA’s internal accounts.  Space Operations is an amalgam that is difficult to analyze at the level of detail provided in the committee’s report.  Commercial crew was shifted into Space Operations, but satellite servicing was moved out, so looking only at the total on paper — $4,756.4 million compared to the $3,957.3 million request — does not tell the whole story.

During markup, Mikulski offered an amendment to add $300 million for commercial crew, $46 million for the WFIRST space telescope, $50 million for the Mars 2020 program,  $54 million for space technology, and $50 million for Orion, but it was rejected on party lines.  Senate Democrats continue to insist that the budget caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) need to be revised for non-defense spending before they will allow any appropriations bills to be debated on the Senate floor.  So far the Republicans do not seem interested in negotiating a new budget deal.  They are interested in adding money for defense and are accomplishing that by adding it in an off-budget account (Overseas Contingency Operations).  Congressional Democrats and the President call it a gimmick and the President has vowed to veto any appropriations bills that conform with the BCA caps.

Note:  The figures for NASA’s total budget request, total recommended by this committee, and the amount of the cut have been clarified.


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