In advance of this morning’s markup by the full House Appropriations Committee of its Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) appropriations bill, the committee released yesterday its report about the bill, which includes some additional funding details and other items about the bill. Some highlights:
- On perhaps the bill’s biggest issue, the proposed termination of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) program, the committee effectively states that this move is designed to serve as an example, and warning, that cost overruns on NASA programs in general will not be tolerated in the future. “The Committee believes that this step will ultimately benefit NASA by setting a cost discipline example for other projects and by relieving the enormous pressure that JWST was placing on NASA’s ability to pursue other science missions.”
- The bill includes $4 million to carry out “descoping studies” for the two highest-ranked planetary science missions in the recent decadal survey, a Mars rover that would cache samples for a future sample return mission and Europa orbiter, moves that are essential to make those missions affordable given projected budgets.
- The bill includes $10 million for NASA to restart production of plutonium-238 needed for radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) for future planetary missions. But since that work must be done in cooperation with the Department of Energy, which did not get corresponding funding in its House appropriations bill, this could be a moot point.
- For Space Technology, the committee justifies its more than 60 percent cut from the administration’s proposal by saying that the proposed growth in this area is “premature”, citing the ongoing technology roadmap studies and lack of “a sustainable budgetary plan for absorbing a new program of such significant size without causing damage to other necessary activities.”
- The bill funds the Space Launch System at $1.985 billion, a little more than the administration’s request but below the authorized level of $2.65 billion. The committee makes clear that the ultimate goal of the SLS is a vehicle that can place 130 tons into orbit, and that any development of a smaller vehicle (in the range of 70-100 tons, as described in the authorization act) must be on the path to that larger SLS. “NASA should not expend funds on design or development of a smaller vehicle that does not add value to the overall SLS effort.”
- The committee also asks NASA to develop a “destination-based approach” to its exploration plans “that would designate a specific target location, such as the Moon, to drive development decisions and timelines going forward.” It’s not clear how this would be different from the president’s stated goals of a human mission to a near Earth asteroid by 2025 and Mars orbit by the 2030s. (No specific asteroid has been identified yet, of course, and it’s even possible that the specific destination hasn’t even been discovered yet.)
- The bill provides $312 million for commercial crew, the same as last year. The committee finds that the administration’s proposal for $850 million is, like that space technology proposal, “premature”, citing a lack of an acquisition strategy for next round of its Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. The committee also recommends NASA make use of unfunded Space Act Agreements for the next CCDev round, in addition to funded awards, “to maximize the number of commercial partners who stay engaged with the program and remain in contention for an eventual service contract.”
- The committee, stating its frustration with “the uncertainty of leadership within the Administration on space policy and the resulting lack of focus within NASA itself,” has included $1 million for the Office of the Inspector General to perform “a comprehensive independent assessment of NASA’s strategic direction and agency management,” due 120 days after enactment of the appropriations bill.
- The appropriations bill would also remove restrictions that have kept NASA from carrying out layoffs of its workforce.