Senate Appropriators Give NASA Mixed News

Senate Appropriators Give NASA Mixed News

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the FY2018 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill on Thursday (July 27).  The news for NASA is mixed.  The committee provided $437 million more than the Trump Administration requested, but $124 million less than current spending. That is in sharp contrast to the House Appropriations Committee, which approved a huge increase both above the request and FY2017.

The biggest changes in the Senate committee’s recommendations are to the Science and Exploration accounts. Exploration is up, but Science is down – a combination of an increase for earth science and a sharp decrease for planetary science. Space Technology gets slightly more than requested, but it must absorb a significant plus-up for the RESTORE-L satellite servicing mission, which the Senate committee wants to continue as is.  The Trump Administration proposed a restructuring.  The Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion would be funded at the same level as FY2017 instead of getting cut as the Administration proposed.   Programs that are part of NASA’s Office of Education are funded at their FY2017 levels.  The Trump Administration wants to eliminate the Office and terminate all its programs, requesting only enough funding to close them out.

NASA is currently funded for FY2017 at $19.653 billion.  The Trump Administration requested $19.092 billion for FY2018, a reduction of $561 million.  The Senate committee approved $19.529 billion, not as much as current spending, but more than the request.   By contrast, House appropriators approved $19.872 billion, a significant increase above both the request and FY2017.

The House and Senate committees often recommend different amounts and have varying priorities.  Typically they reach an acceptable compromise by the time the appropriations process runs its course.  The problem right now is that neither the House nor the Senate have passed Budget Resolutions or reached any other agreement setting the total amount of money Congress may spend for FY2018.  The 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) spending caps remain in effect unless Congress and the White House replace them by reaching a different agreement and enacting that into law.  If Congress exceeds the BCA caps, automatic across-the-board cuts called a sequester go into effect.  That happened in FY2013 with drastic consequences.  Many members of Congress want to avoid that situation, but with a new President in the White House, all bets are off.

The bottom line is that as important as the House and Senate Appropriations Committee recommendations are, until some agreement is reached on total federal spending, all these numbers are more tentative than usual.

That being said, the Senate Committee’s decisions are very important.  Four of its priorities are NASA’s earth science program, human exploration beyond low Earth orbit (SLS/Orion/Exploration Ground Systems), the RESTORE-L satellite servicing program, and NASA’s education programs.

The Trump Administration proposed cutting earth science by $167 million and terminating five programs:  PACE, CLARREO-Pathfinder, Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI), OCO-3, and the earth-facing instruments on the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR). House appropriators recommended cutting earth science by an additional $50 million.

The Senate committee, by contrast, restored the $167 million and specifically funded PACE, CLARREO-Pathfinder, OCO-3 and DSCOVR’s earth-facing instruments. As for RBI, an instrument intended to be launched on NOAA’s JPSS-2 weather satellite, the committee required NASA to report to Congress on whether cost and schedule challenges can be overcome in a timely manner.  If the answer is yes, NASA may continue funding it within available funds.

What is good news for earth science, however, is not so good news for planetary science.  The request was $1.93 billion, but the Senate committee approved $1.61 billion, a sharp contrast to the House committee, which recommended $2.12 billion.

The Senate bill also retains the RESTORE-L satellite servicing mission, which the Trump Administration wants to restructure and merge with a complementary DARPA program.  Instead, the Senate committee funds it at $130 million, the same as FY2017.  That is an $82 million increase and the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) would have to absorb most of that.  The committee increased STMD’s budget above the request by only $21.4 million.

SLS, Orion and their associated ground systems fare well in the Senate committee’s action.  Like the House committee, the Senate holds SLS and Orion at their FY2017 levels ($2.15 billion and $1.35 billion respectively) instead of decreasing them as proposed by the Trump Administration, and increases funding for ground systems.

The Senate committee flatly rejected the proposed funding cuts to the EPSCoR, MUREP, Space Grant and SEAP programs within NASA’s Office of Education, but left open how those programs should be managed within the agency.

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