Senate Subcommittee Approves $19.3 Billion for NASA, Outlook in House Also Positive

Senate Subcommittee Approves $19.3 Billion for NASA, Outlook in House Also Positive

The Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $19.3 billion for NASA today.  That is only a first step in the appropriations process, but a sign that Congress wants to maintain NASA at its current funding level.   The chairman of the House CJS subcommittee also offered encouraging words today.

NASA’s FY2017 budget request is $18.262 billion in appropriated funds and $763 million that would be moved from the mandatory portion of the federal budget (that funds programs like Social Security and Medicare) into the discretionary category and allocated to NASA, for a total of $19.025 billion.  Such an approach has never been used before and appropriations committees have no control over mandatory spending.  Congress has sharply criticized the Administration for using such a “gimmick,” but expressed support for NASA at its current (FY2016) funding level of $19.285 billion.

Senate Appropriations CJS subcommittee chair Richard Shelby (R-AL) reasserted his objection to the gimmick, but announced that NASA would receive $19.3 billion for FY2017 under his subcommittee’s recommendation.  Subcommittee vice-chair Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) later said that the recommended level for FY2017 is $21 million above FY2016, which still rounds to $19.3 billion.  

The committee released a broad summary of the subcommittee’s recommendations, but not details.  Those typically are provided after full committee markup, which is scheduled for Thursday morning.  According to the summary —

  • the Space Launch System (SLS), which is being built in Shelby’s home state of Alabama, will receive $2.15 billion, which is $150 million more than in FY2016 and $920 million above the request.   Included in that total is $300 million for the Enhanced (or Exploration) Upper Stage (EUS);
  • Orion will receive $1.3 billion, $30 million more than FY2016 and $247 million more than the request;
  • Science will receive $5.4 billion, $194 million less than FY2016, but $247 million more than the request;
  • Commercial crew will receive $1.18 billion, the same as the request; and
  • Space Technology will receive $687 million, the same as FY2016 and $4.1 million less than the request.

Mikulski said yesterday that she expects the bill to go to the Senate floor for consideration in the next 2-3 weeks, though whether it will pass or not remains to be seen.  The Senate has not passed any of the 12 individual appropriations bills in several years.  Typically, when the new fiscal year begins on October 1, the government ends up being funded by one or more Continuing Resolutions (CRs) that keep agencies at their previous year’s funding level, followed by an “omnibus” or “consolidated” appropriations that combines all 12 appropriations bills and funds agencies for the entire fiscal year (a “full year” appropriations).

Shelby’s House counterpart, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), clearly expects that to play out this year as well.   He was scheduled to speak to a Space Transportation Association (STA) luncheon today, but stopped by only long enough to apologize profusely that the House Appropriations Committee was marking up other legislation at the same time and his presence was required there.  In his brief visit, he said he expects the government to be funded by a CR initially, but is optimistic that a full year appropriations will pass in due course and NASA will do well.  He said he expected the Senate markup to be higher in some areas and lower in others than what his House committee will recommend, but it will be worked out in conference: “Senator Shelby is as committed to NASA as I am. … NASA’s number will be one that we are all going to be excited and proud of” and includes funding for the robotic mission to Europa that he champions.

STA was prepared for the possibility that Culberson might not be able to stay long and had arranged in advance for the head of NASA’s science programs, John Grunsfeld, to give a presentation instead.  Grunsfeld is retiring from NASA at the end of the month and STA used today’s event as an opportunity to present him with its Leadership Award while Culberson was present.

Grunsfeld focused on the search for life in the universe, noting that the search for life is different from the search for intelligent life — whether in the universe or, jokingly, inside the Beltway (a highway that surrounds Washington, DC).   After describing NASA efforts to find other Earth-like planets using the Kepler Space Telescope and larger potential telescopes, he was asked about his views on the recently announced Breakthrough Initiative by Yuri Millner and Stephen Hawking to send tiny spacecraft to Alpha Centauri.   In short, he thinks “it’s cool.”

He also said that he considers SLS “transformative” for space science because it can launch much larger spacecraft — in mass and volume – including space telescopes and planetary exploration spacecraft and dramatically shorten the time to reach destinations compared to today’s rockets.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.