Senate Subcommittee Adds $100 Million for Mars Missions, Cuts Commercial Crew

Senate Subcommittee Adds $100 Million for Mars Missions, Cuts Commercial Crew

The big news out of the Senate Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee today — the decision to transfer NOAA’s satellite programs to NASA (except for operations) — overshadowed other key recommendations.   Among them are an addition of $100 million for robotic Mars exploration and a cut of $305 million from commercial crew compared to the President’s request for FY2013.

The Obama Administration’s proposed 21 percent cut to NASA’s planetary exploration program, of which Mars exploration is part, has provoked outrage in the planetary science community and among its supporters.  Funding for planetary exploration would decrease from $1.5 billion in FY2012 to $1.2 billion in FY2013 with additional decreases in subsequent years.   Consequently, NASA had to withdraw from planned cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA) on two Mars missions in 2016 and 2018.  It is now planning to launch a smaller mission in 2018 that is yet to be defined.  The $100 million added by the subcommittee presumably would be targeted to the new mission.  ESA has moved on to partner with Russia instead of the United States for the 2016 mission.

Separately, Congress and the Obama Administration have been sparring for the past three years over the President’s desire to use government funds to help companies develop crew space transportation systems to take people to and from low Earth orbit (LEO) instead of NASA building such a system.  Congress wants NASA to build a new big rocket (the Space Launch System) and a spacecraft (Orion) to go beyond LEO.  The compromise in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act was to do both, but Congress favors SLS/Orion while the Administration favors commercial crew.   Today, the United States cannot launch anyone into space.  NASA relies on Russia to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station.  The agency is facilitating companies like SpaceX to develop U.S. commercial crew transportation systems with the goal of purchasing services from them instead of Russia beginning in 2017.   Congress has allowed the Obama Administration to proceed with commercial crew, but with less funding than requested.  For FY2013, NASA is asking for $830 million and insists that much is needed to meet the 2017 date. 

The Senate subcommittee, however, is recommending $525 million.   Although it is $305 million less than the request, it is $25 million more than Congress provided in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, which covers FY2011-2013.   From a congressional viewpoint, therefore, it is an increase even though it is a substantial decrease from what NASA says it needs.

A summary of the subcommittee’s action is posted on the committee’s website.   The decision to move NOAA’s satellite programs into NASA, along with the money for them, raises the total for NASA to $19.4 billion, a significant increase from the $17.71 billion requested.    The summary says that if the NOAA money was not transferred to NASA, the budget for NASA would be $41.5 million less than what was appropriated for FY2012.  NASA received $17.77 billion in FY2012 after an across-the-board cut is taken into account, so that would make the NASA total $17.73 billion.

The Senate subcommittee’s action is just the first step in the lengthy congressional process of providing funding for government agencies.   Senator Mikulski, chair of the Senate CJS subcommittee, said today that the full Senate Appropriations Committee would markup the bill on Thursday, but it has not yet been announced on the committee’s website.   The House CJS appropriations subcommittee will markup its version of the bill on Thursday morning at 9:30 am.

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