In advance of Thursday morning’s markup of the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) appropriations bill by the full House Appropriations Committee, the committee released the report accompanying the bill, which offers more details on the spending levels for NASA and other agencies in the bill. First, an updated version of the table comparing the President’s budget request (PBR) for fiscal year 2015 with the spending levels in the bill:
|Account||FY15 PBR||House CJS Draft||PBR-House Diff|
|- Earth Science||$1,770.3||$1,750.0||-$20.3|
|- Planetary Science||$1,280.3||$1,450.0||$169.7|
|- Commercial Spaceflight||$848.3||$785.0||-$63.3|
|- Exploration R&D||$343.4||$327.0||-$16.4|
|- Space and Flight Support||$854.6||$845.0||-$9.6|
|CROSS AGENCY SUPPORT||$2,778.6||$2,779.0||$0.4|
What attracted the most attention was the funding for planetary science: $1.45 billion, an increase of nearly $170 million over the administration’s request. “NASA’s request for Planetary Science once again represents a substantial decrease below appropriated levels and would have a negative impact on both planned and existing missions,” the report states. The report calls on NASA, which is ramping up plans to issue an announcement of opportunity (AO) for its Discovery program of low-cost planetary science missions later this year, to plan to release another Discovery AO during fiscal year 2016.
The committee is also skeptical of NASA’s interest in a lower-cost (no more than $1 billion) Europa mission, for which NASA issued a request for information (RFI) last week. “[T]he Committee has not seen any credible evidence that such a cost cap is feasible and directs NASA not to use further project resources in pursuit of such an unlikely outcome,” the report states.
That proposed increase was warmly welcomed by The Planetary Society, which has been lobbying in Washington this week for more planetary science funding. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), a member of the CJS appropriations subcommittee, also praised the increase in a statement. “With this funding increase, we will be able to keep Mars 2020 on track and begin an exciting new mission to Europa, two of the science community’s highest priorities,” he said. “We should also be able to continue the operation of craft that have exceeded their estimated lives but continue to produce valuable science,” a reference to the pending senior review of ongoing planetary science missions, including Cassini and Curiosity.
In astrophysics, the bill provides $70 million to the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), an airborne observatory that the administration sharply cut in its FY15 proposal, threatening to put the aircraft into mothballs. The $70 million provided is less than the $84.4 million SOFIA received for FY14, but the committee said in the report that the funding it offers should be enough to support its fixed costs and “a base level of scientific observations” while allowing NASA to continue seeking new partners to fill in the rest.
Elsewhere in the NASA section of the report, the committee criticized NASA for “requesting arbitrarily reduced funding levels” for the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket, resulting in “an inefficient flat-line budget profile.” The committee rectifies this by funding SLS at the same level as the final FY14 appropriations bill: also a flat line, but at a higher level.
The committee continued its skepticism of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) plans, arguing that it “still has outstanding questions and concerns about the ARM’s costs and feasibility, as well as its strategic relevance and potential to generate external support from the public and international collaborators.” The bill directs NASA to spend money appropriated for ARM only “on those portions of the ARM mission that are also applicable to other current NASA programs, clearly extensible to other potential future exploration missions, such as to the Moon, Phobos/Deimos or Mars, or have broad applicability to other future non-exploration activities, such as in-space robotic servicing.” In a provision similar to one in the NASA authorization bill recently passed by the House Science Committee, the report calls for a study of the “Mars Flyby 2021″ concept for the EM-2 mission, currently the first crewed SLS/Orion flight.
The bill would provide commercial crew with $785 million, less than 10% below the administration’s request of $848 million. That generosity, though, comes with conditions, notably, a call for NASA to select only a single company in the next round of the competition, Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap), for which NASA is now evaluating proposals with a selection due in August. “The Committee believes that this recommendation strikes the appropriate balance between support for the program’s underlying goal and caution against management approaches that many in the Congress do not endorse,” the report states, also pressing NASA to “incentivize further private investment in the program” and provide the committee with the prices the companies would charge NASA for ferrying astronauts to and from the station once the contract selection blackout ends.