A number of observers were surprised that NASA did as well as it did in the omnibus fiscal year 2014 spending bill, with its overall appropriation of $17.65 billion falling just about $70 million short of the administration’s original request. Although some programs did better than others (space technology, for example, saw its request cut by nearly a quarter in the final fill), the reaction in general to the bill has been positive by the administration, members of Congress, and others.
“Your hard work – and the plan you’ve been working hard to execute – has clearly been acknowledged and recognized under the funding bill unveiled yesterday by Congress,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in a message to agency employees Tuesday. The bill, he said, supported the broad portfolio of NASA activities, from the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion to efforts to “formulate” the agency’s proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission (although there was some critical language about the ARM in the report accompanying the bill.) “The message from our nation’s leaders today is simple and straightforward: keep doing what you’re doing to keep the United States the world leader in space.”
Richard DalBello of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy also offered some positive words about NASA’s appropriations in comments at the beginning of panel discussion about space technology policy at the AIAA SciTech 2014 conference outside Washington, DC, Tuesday morning. “We got a NASA budget last night. It looks pretty darn good,” he said, adding that he had not yet had a chance to make a detailed review of the bill’s contents. “A lot of important things seem to have been protected, and that’s positive, because that means we’re on the same page with Congress.”
Some members of Congress appeared to be on the same page in their assessment of the NASA budget. “This is a big win,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) said in a statement about the NASA budget Tuesday. His statement specifically noted the nearly $700 million for commercial crew and sufficient funding for the SLS to keep it (or “the monster rocket,” as the statement calls it, a term that Nelson has frequently used for the SLS but which also has been used pejoratively by its critics) “on track.”
Another supporter of the bill’s funding for SLS is Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “I am pleased that this legislation includes the funding necessary to continue the great work underway in Huntsville on the Space Launch System,” he said in a statement provided to the Huntsville Times. “If we are to maintain our leadership role in human space flight, we must continue to make SLS a priority in NASA’s budget. I will continue to do everything in my power to ensure that.”
The uptick in spending for NASA’s planetary science program also generated praise from another member of Congress. “I am pleased that the spending bill contains strong funding for the continued development of the Mars 2020 rover and for a mission to Jupiter and its moon Europa,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) in a statement. “I hope that this will dissuade the Administration from putting forward a 2015 budget that again seeks to cut funding for NASA’s pathbreaking exploration of our solar system.” However, he adds in the statement that he’s heard “disquieting rumors” that the fiscal year 2015 budget proposal will include such cuts, including “possible delays to the next two Mars missions and shutting down some current missions.” That last comment appears to be a reference to the agency’s upcoming “Senior Review” of ongoing planetary science missions, and concerns that there won’t be enough money to keep all of those missions, especially Cassini, operating after 2014.
The Planetary Society also endorsed the funding for planetary science in the bill, although lamenting that the $1.345 billion provided still falls below the $1.5 billion the program enjoyed back in 2012. It particularly supported the $80 million specifically earmarked in the bill for studies of a potential Europa mission, funding not requested by the administration. “Exploring Europa is no longer a ‘should’ but a ‘must,’” the society’s Casey Dreier said in the statement. “The White House should embrace this bold search for life and request a new start for this mission in FY2015.”
In a separate blog post, The Planetary Society also called attention to language in the report accompanying the bill about NASA’s “reprogramming and transfer authorities” that the agency uses to redirect funding among programs. Those authorities, the report states, “exist so that NASA can respond to unexpected, exigent circumstances that may arise during the fiscal year, not so that NASA can pursue its internal priorities at the expense of congressional direction. If NASA persists in abusing its reprogramming and transfer authorities, those authorities will be eliminated in future appropriations acts.” The Planetary Society saw that as a rebuke to NASA’s efforts in 2013 to redirect, through its operating plan, additional funds allocated by Congress for planetary science to other programs, an effort Congress rejected.