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Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma) is planning a multipronged approach to getting government space agencies to adopt commercial solutions. He will introduce a comprehensive bill -- the American Space Renaissance Act -- later this year, but does not expect it to pass en toto. Instead, he sees it as a repository of "plug and play" provisions that will be inserted into other pieces of legislation, especially this year's National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
Speaking at a Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) breakfast meeting on Friday, Bridenstine laid out his plans "to promote policies that will permanently make America the predominant spacefaring nation." A draft of the American Space Renaissance Act will be released at the Space Foundation's Space Symposium in April and Bridenstine is seeking feedback from interested parties.
He listed a number themes that will be included in the draft legislation: fostering, encouraging and incentivizing industry to innovate and thrive in the United States; expanding launch options and producing more satellites in the United States; having a robust space travel infrastructure; being the home of world-changing plans like point-to-point suborbital flight, lunar habitats and asteroid mining; and getting the government to purchase services instead of owning satellites.
The bill is intended to serve as a "conversation piece as well as a repository for the best ideas that we can plug and play into different pieces of legislation," he said.
Bridenstine serves on both the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, where he chairs the Subcommittee on Environment, and the House Armed Services Committee, where he is a member of the subcommittee on Strategic Forces. That provides him a broader view of space issues than most Members of Congress. The second-term Congressman said his constituents (in the Tulsa area) have little interest in space programs because they do not recognize the role that space plays in their everyday lives, but he is convinced of its importance.
He is particularly passionate about the nation's weather satellites. His goal is for forecasts to become so accurate that there will be zero deaths from tornadoes, a frequent occurrence in Oklahoma. He has been a strong critic of NOAA's management of the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R series because of their high cost and schedule delays, but more broadly worries that NOAA builds "Battlestar Gallaticas" that are vulnerable to a range of threats -- from launch failures, to system failures, to attacks from enemies -- and sees commercial weather companies and their constellations of small satellites as part of the solution.
The FY2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act directed NOAA to initiate a commercial weather data pilot program to purchase, evaluate and calibrate commercial weather data and assess its viability for inclusion in NOAA's numerical weather models. The idea originated in the Weather Research and Forecast Innovation Act (H.R. 1561) that passed the House last year, which Bridenstine co-sponsored. It would authorize $9 million for this effort. The Senate has not acted on that bill yet, but the weather data pilot program was included in NOAA's portion of the FY2016 appropriations bill, with $3 million allocated. A Bridenstine aide said on Friday that a report from NOAA on its implementation of the pilot program was due on February 16, but has not yet been received. NOAA is requesting $5 million for FY2017.
Bridenstine said he plans to try and include a similar provision for DOD in this year's NDAA. DOD is still struggling to shape its weather satellite strategy following the 2010 cancellation of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). It has had a few false starts and Bridenstine clearly sees commercial data as part of the solution.
He also will try to include language in the NDAA to begin a transition of responsibility for providing space situational awareness (SSA) data and conjunction analyses (to warn of potential collisions) to commercial entities and foreign governments. Today, DOD's Joint Space Operations Center (JPSoC) provides SSA data to everyone, but Bridenstine reiterated Friday what he has said in the past that it is a distraction for JSPoC, which should be focused on its DOD mission of "fighting and winning wars." He wants to create a commercialized Conjunction Analysis and Warning Center that fuses unclassified DOD data with data from international partners and commercial operators. The Center would be subject to oversight by the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST).
Bridenstine insisted that he is a conservative Republican who typically does not favor government regulation, but it is necessary in some cases. Commercial space is one of them because "the lack of appropriate regulation is regulation itself." His goal is to find a "sweet spot" to "maximize regulatory certainty and minimize regulatory interference - a de minumus approach."
As for his Conjunction Analysis and Warning Center that he wants included in the NDAA, he stressed that he is not proposing any new regulatory authority. "Zero. My objective is to gradually build the capacity of a civilian agency" to do SSA. Eventually, he thinks a government agency -- specifically FAA/AST -- should be in charge of Space Traffic Management, but he is not proposing that right now. He also restated his intent for FAA/AST to be designated as the government agency in charge of implementing a requirement in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that governments authorize and continually supervise the actions of their non-governmental entities, like companies. FAA/AST regulates commercial launches and reentries, NOAA regulates commercial remote sensing satellites, and the Federal Communications Commission regulates commercial communications satellites, but no agency has been appointed to regulate activities such as asteroid mining or commercial activities on the lunar surface. He thinks FAA/AST should expand its role to do so.
The House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) committee has released its annual "Views and Estimates" report for the coming year that lays out its plans for 2016. The NASA section contains familiar themes -- reduce NASA's earth science funding, keep the Space Launch System (SLS) on track, and prohibit funds for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The NOAA section focuses on the commercial weather data pilot project created by the committee and NOAA's Polar Follow On program.
The report is entitled "Fiscal Year GOP Views and Estimates," indicating they are the views and estimates only of the committee's Republican majority.
House SS&T is an authorizing committee that conducts oversight of NASA and writes legislation setting policy and recommending funding levels. NASA currently does not have an authorization bill with recommended funding levels since the last version, enacted in 2010, covered only through 2013. The policy provisions remain in force until and unless they are changed by a subsequent law. The House passed a 2015 NASA authorization bill last year, but the Senate did not act on it. This committee approved a 2016-2017 NASA authorization bill (H.R. 2039) last year as well, but there has been no further action (it was approved on a party-line vote).
The report says that the committee this year will:
NASA has met the first goal of the George E. Brown Jr. NEO Survey Program -- locating and cataloging 90 percent of NEOs larger than 1 kilometer -- but has indicated that it will not be able to meet the second goal of locating 90 percent of those 140 meters or more in diameter by 2020. NASA's NEO program, part of the Science Mission Directorate, is currently funded at $50 million per year and the FY2017 request is for that amount.
The committee held a hearing yesterday on a bill introduced by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) recommending changes to how NASA is managed and related topics. A SpacePolicyOnline.com summary will be posted soon.
NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce and does not have an authorization bill similar to NASA's, so policy matters are dealt with in other legislation. The House passed the Weather Forecasting and Research Innovation Act (H.R. 1561) last year.
Regarding NOAA's satellite activities, in this Views and Estimates report the committee says it will:
The committee also oversees the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST). Last year, the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (P.L. 114-90) was enacted and the Views and Estimates report states that implementation of the act should not increase AST's activities in FY2017 compared with FY2016. The President is requesting $19.8 million for AST this year, a $2 million increase over FY2016.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that the NEO program's current goal is locating asteroids 140 kilometers or more in diameter. It is 140 meters, not kilometers.
Two House appropriators blasted the Obama Administration today for its budget "gimmick" of requesting funds for the Department of Commerce (DOC) from both the discretionary part of the federal budget and from "mandatory" spending. The Administration is using the same approach to request funding for NASA.
Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) and Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), chairman of the full House Appropriations Committee and its Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee respectively, made their comments today (February 23) at a CJS hearing on DOC's FY2017 budget request. NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce, but NOAA's satellite programs were barely mentioned.
Culberson said in his opening statement that he and other committee members were concerned that the President's request for DOC includes "more than $2 billion in new mandatory spending. Frankly they're just gimmicks including such things as a $10 a barrel tax on oil, which is not likely to happen. The President's request is not realistic and makes the work of this committee more difficult."
Rogers pointed out that Congress and the Administration agreed on budget caps for FY2016 and FY2017 last year and he is "disappointed" that the FY2017 budget request does not abide by them and is full of "gimmicks" making the budget "effectively DOA" or dead on arrival. DOC is requesting $9.7 billion in discretionary spending, a 5 percent increase over FY2016, Rogers said, plus $2 billion in mandatory funding, which is "unrealistic to say the very least." At a time when Congress is reining in discretionary spending and the public is "alarmed" at the increases required to pay for mandatory programs, DOC is requesting those funds "as if you didn't know that would make me mad," he exclaimed. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker clarified that the $2 billion in mandatory spending would be spent over 5 years.
The hearing addressed a broad range of the Department of Commerce's responsibilities, such as administering the Internet's Domain Name System, conducting the decennial census, and overseeing patents, trade, manufacturing, and ocean resources including fisheries. The only mention of NOAA's satellite programs was a comment by Culberson in his opening statement that he wants to ensure they meet their cost and schedule guidelines. The CJS subcommittee typically has a separate hearing on NOAA's budget request where the satellite programs are discussed in more detail.
The significance of this hearing is the rejection of the President's attempt to use mandatory spending to fund part of DOC's activities, an approach he is also using with NASA and several other agencies.
The federal budget is divided into mandatory and discretionary spending. Mandatory spending, as the term implies, must be spent because of laws already in force that set out requirements for the funds to be paid, such as Social Security or Medicare payments to people eligible for benefits. Mandatory spending also includes interest that must be paid on the national debt, for example. Discretionary spending, conversely, is the money that Congress chooses to spend (or not) each year through the appropriations process. NASA and DOC have always been funded from discretionary funds.
NASA displays its budget request as $19.025 billion, but that is composed of $18.262 billion in appropriated funds from the discretionary part of the federal budget and $763 million from the mandatory funds. Without the $763 million in mandatory funds, the President's request is a $1 billion cut from its FY2016 funding level. (See SpacePolicyOnline.com's fact sheet on NASA's FY2017 budget request for more information.)
It does not appear that any of the $2 billion over five years from mandatory funds in DOC's budget is for NOAA's satellite programs, however. They are funded through the Procurement, Acquisition and Construction (PAC) account of NOAA's budget. The Office of Management and Budget's (OMB's) Table 29-1 shows $100 million in FY2017 in PAC funding as being part of this mandatory proposal, but the chapter on the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Services (NESDIS) in NOAA's budget "blue book" makes no mention of mandatory spending, although it is mentioned for other NOAA activities.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of February 22-26, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
Now that the President has submitted his FY2017 budget request and Congress is back from its week-long break, congressional hearings on the budget and related topics begin in earnest.
This week, subcommittees of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and the Defense Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee (HAC-D) will hold hearings on the status of U.S. strategic forces (HASC), the FY2017 DOD budget for science and technology (HASC), and the entire DOD budget request (HAC-D).
Subcommittees of the House Appropriations Committee will hold hearings on the budgets for the Department of Commerce (which includes NOAA) and Department of Transportation (which includes the FAA and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation). It is unlikely that space activities will come up at those hearings, but we list them here for completeness. Specific hearings on NOAA and the FAA are likely to be scheduled in the coming weeks.
As for NASA, although it is not about the FY2017 budget request per se, the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) committee will hold a hearing on the Space Leadership Preservation Act (H.R. 2093). That bill is sponsored by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who chairs the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA. Similar legislation in the previous two Congresses was sponsored by Frank Wolf, who chaired the CJS subcommittee until he retired. House SS&T held a hearing on one of those bills (H.R. 823 from the 113th Congress) on February 27, 2013, almost exactly three years ago. Culberson reintroduced the legislation last April. House SS&T Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and four others (two Republicans, two Democrats) are co-sponsors. There are some differences among the three versions of the bill, but essentially the goal is for NASA to be run by a Board of Directors similar to the National Science Board that oversees the National Science Foundation and to make the position of NASA Administrator a 10-year appointment, similar to the Director of the FBI. The sponsors of the legislation assert these steps would make NASA less political.
House SS&T will hold a hearing on the discovery of gravitational waves on Wednesday. The discovery was made using terrestrial instruments -- LIGO -- but spacecraft have been launched (Europe's LISA Pathfinder) or are planned to investigate that phenomenon, so space-based astrophysics may come up.
Off the Hill, on Thursday, two groups are holding events looking at the FY2017 budget request -- both at the same time, unfortunately. The Air Force Association and FiscalTrak will hold a symposium focused on the request for national security space at the Key Bridge Marriott in Arlington, VA. In another part of Arlington, called Pentagon City because of its proximity to the Pentagon, Women in Aerospace will hold a broader "senior leaders" discussion with representatives of NOAA, DOD, the Senate Appropriations Committee, and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. Both of those, again unfortunately, are at the same time as the House SS&T hearing on the Space Leadership Preservation Act and the HAC-D hearing with Secretary of Defense Carter on the DOD budget. So #needclones is the hashtag of the week, especially for your SpacePolicyOnline.com editor since I will be moderating a panel at the WIA event. The good news is that congressional committees usually webcast their hearings so those should be available for later viewing.
It's a busy week. Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below. Check back throughout the week for any others that are announced later and added to our Events of Interest list.
Monday-Thursday, February 22-25
Tuesday, February 23
Wednesday, February 24
Thursday, February 25
Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic introduced its new SpaceShipTwo to the world yesterday, 16 months after a fatal accident that destroyed the first vehicle in the series. This second vehicle, SS2-002, was christened Virgin Space Ship (VSS) Unity by Branson's one-year old granddaughter with a bottle of milk.
SpaceShipTwo is an air-launched spaceplane. It is carried aloft by the WhiteKnightTwo aircraft, which drops the spaceplane at about 45,000 feet altitude where it fires its own rocket engines to reach an altitude of at least 100 kilometers, an internationally recognized (but not legally defined) boundary between air and space. After about six minutes in weightlessness, it returns to land on Earth. The company's goal is to fly passengers on suborbital flights. The current price is $250,000 per passenger. The vehicle is designed to carry two pilots and up to six passengers.
The October 31, 2014 accident that destroyed the first SpaceShipTwo (SS2-001) killed co-pilot Michael Alsbury and injured pilot Peter Siebold. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation determined that during ascent Alsbury prematurely moved a lever that deployed a feathering system meant to slow the spaceplane during descent. Aerodynamic forces pulled the spaceplane apart. It was not equipped with ejection seats, but Siebold managed to separate from his seat and his parachute deployed. He landed injured, but alive. Alsbury was found dead in his seat on the ground. SpaceShipTwo was developed by Scaled Composites (part of Northrop Grumman), which was in charge of the test flight and both pilots were Scaled employees.
VSS Unity and future vehicles in the series are built by Virgin Galactic's manufacturing organization, The Spaceship Company, whose facilities are at the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, CA. Commercial flights will take place from Spaceport America in New Mexico.
Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said in January 2015 that the company would persevere and that structural fabrication of this second vehicle was 90 percent complete at the time as well as two-thirds of the systems. He was optimistic that test flights would resume in 2015 and commercial flights would begin in 2016. Test flights were delayed until now and no schedule for commercial flights was announced yesterday.
The NTSB not only identified Alsbury's premature unlocking of the feathering system as the probable cause from a technical standpoint, but faulted Scaled Composites' "failure to consider and protect against the possibility that a single human error could result in a catastrophic hazard" to the vehicle. That failure "set the stage" for Alsbury's "premature unlocking of the feather system as a result of time pressure and vibration and loads that he had not recently experienced..."
VSS Unity's roll-out yesterday marked the beginning of its testing "as a complete vehicle," according to Doug Shane, President of The Spaceship Company. He said that "hardly a day goes by when I don't think of Mike [Alsbury] and of his family. I know that he believed in this mission and this technology and in this vehicle design. And we have made this a safer and better system because making a safer and better system was what Mike was all about."
The ceremony yesterday included a message from renowned physicist Stephen Hawking. Branson credited Hawking with coming up with the name Unity.
NASA's Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) took a step forward on Wednesday with approval from NASA's Program Management Council. WFIRST will be the next large (flagship) space telescope after the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and will search for exoplanets and aid in understanding dark energy and dark matter.
WFIRST was the top priority for a flagship space telescope in the 2010 National Research Council (NRC) astrophysics Decadal Survey New Worlds New Horizons. Cost overruns and schedule delays on JWST meant that WFIRST has had to wait much longer than expected to move forward. Funding for JWST had to pass its peak before a funding wedge to initiate WFIRST opened up. JWST, scheduled for launch in 2018, is finally past that phase.
WFIRST has been through many changes since the NWNH Decadal Survey largely because the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which builds and operates the nation's spy satellites, transferred to NASA a 2.4 meter space-qualified telescope that it no longer needed. The NRO hardware is called Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets (AFTA) and the project is now often referred to as WFIRST/AFTA.
NASA asked the NRC to review the design changes associated with using the NRO hardware. The 2014 NRC report expressed concern about the cost implications, especially if a coronagraph was added to the mission. NASA decided to add a coronagraph anyway because it will enhance the scientific capability of the spacecraft. The coronagraph will block the light of a star, enabling precise measurements of what is around the star, such as planets and their atmospheres. WFIRST is expected to detect thousands of new exoplanets. Launch is anticipated in the mid-2020s.
Scientists use the terms dark energy and dark matter to refer to the approximately 96 percent of the universe that we do not yet understand. Scientists concluded in the 1990s that we understand only four percent of what is in the universe, with dark energy comprising approximately 72 percent and dark matter about 24 percent. Dark energy is an unknown force that is pushing the universe apart at a greater rate than expected. Dark matter is "invisible material that makes up most of the matter in the universe," according to NASA.
Like JWST, WFIRST is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Space Telescope Science Institute, and the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center are participating in the project.
NASA's Program Management Council evaluates the content, cost, risk management and performance of the agency's programs and projects. It decided to move forward with WFIRST yesterday.
UPDATE, March 3, 2016: Sen. Shelby won the primary.
ORIGINAL STORY, February 16, 2016: Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) is facing four Republican opponents in Alabama's March 1 Senate primary. The 81-year-old five-term Republican is expected to win, but in this anti-establishment political season, there are no sure bets.
In the space policy community, Shelby is best known for his unwavering support of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS), managed by Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, and his clash with Sen. John McCain over the United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) use of Russian RD-180 rocket engines for the Atlas V launch vehicle. ULA builds its rockets in Decatur, AL. McCain wants to limit the number of RD-180s ULA can obtain, while Shelby wants considerable flexibility.
The McCain-Shelby fireworks erupted publicly in December when Shelby, a powerful member of the Senate Appropriations Committee working with one of the committee's top Democrats, Dick Durbin (D-IL), undermined McCain's efforts to limit to nine the additional number of RD-180s that ULA could obtain for national security launches. The appropriations committee essentially lifted that limit. McCain pulled no punches in lambasting the two for putting constituent interests ahead of national interests. ULA is jointly owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Boeing is headquartered in Durbin's state of Illinois.
The antagonism continued last week with McCain and Durbin publishing dueling commentaries in the Wall Street Journal (McCain's as an op-ed on Monday, Durbin's as a letter to the editor on Thursday), and McCain (or his designee) live-tweeting rejoinders to Shelby's conversation with Air Force witnesses about RD-180s at a hearing on Wednesday. The Air Force agrees with ULA on the need for the flexibility the appropriations act provides. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said on Wednesday that 18 are needed; last year the number was 14. McCain's FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act allows only nine.
Shelby is among the highest ranking Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee and chairs the Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee that funds NASA. He is a steadfast supporter of SLS and widely viewed as the architect of the increased budgets SLS has received compared to the President's request. For the current fiscal year (FY2016), for example, Congress appropriated $2 billion for SLS, compared with the President's request of $1.356 billion.
Alabama holds its Republican and Democratic primaries on March 1 along with a number of other states in what is billed as "Super Tuesday." While most of the attention will be focused on the presidential races, they are not the only ones of consequence.
Shelby is facing four Republican primary opponents. National Journal (NJ) reports that Shelby and the Republican party nationally, which is fighting to retain control of the Senate, are taking the race very seriously despite internal polls that show Shelby leading. He needs a majority of votes to avoid a runoff and with the anti-establishment tenor of the presidential races, nothing can be taken for granted. NJ quotes Republican consultant Brad Todd as saying that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz may "motivate a group of not your normal Alabama Republican primary voters" and Shelby and other incumbents need to be prepared for "having an electorate you weren't counting on."
Shelby's opponents are Jonathan McConnell, 33, a Marine veteran; John Martin, 59, a former Army Ranger; Marcus Bowman, 42, a former legislative analyst and research consultant; and Shadrack McGill, 40, a former Alabama state senator.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of February 15-19, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in recess this week.
During the Week
Monday (February 15) is a U.S. federal holiday, President's Day, marking the birthdays of two of our most famous Presidents -- Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and George Washington (February 22). Federal offices will be closed on Monday and Congress is taking the entire week off from inside-the-Beltway debates to check in with their constituents back home.
Consequently it is a relatively quiet week space policy-wise, which should give us all time to digest the President's FY2017 budget request. The NASA request is particularly complicated as explained in our new fact sheet. We also have a fact sheet on NOAA's request for satellites.
One intriguing meeting this week is of the Ad Hoc Task Force on Big Data of the NASA Advisory Council's (NAC's) Science Committee. The meeting, all day Tuesday, was announced in the Federal Register, which is a requirement for all advisory committee meetings governed by the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA). We couldn't find anything about the upcoming meeting or the task force itself on the websites of NAC or its Science Committee, however, other than a broken link to a presentation by Elaine Denning at the November 2015 Science Committee meeting and a functioning link to a July 2015 presentation by Dr. Erin Smith, the task force's executive secretary. That includes the two-page Terms of Reference for the task force, signed by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden in January 2015. The Federal Register notice provides only a general list of agenda items, but overall it looks like quite an interesting set of issues. The meeting is available by WebEx and telecon.
The AIAA's National Capital Section luncheon on Wednesday is also notable this week. Winston Beauchamp is the speaker. He is Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space and Director, Principal DoD Space Advisor Staff. The Principal DoD Space Advisor (PDSA) position was created in October 2015, broadening the responsibilities of what previously was called the "Executive Agent for Space" (EA4S). Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James was the EA4S and now is the PDSA. DOD said at the time that the new position would "strengthen the leadership of the space enterprise by sharpening authorities and responsibilities, and unifying diffused and competing voices within the department." Hopefully Beauchamp will provide a glimpse into how things are going so far.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below. Check back throughout the week to see additions to our Events of Interest list that are announced in the coming days.
Tuesday, February 16
Wednesday, February 17
Free fact sheets summarizing and analyzing President Obama's FY2017 budget requests for NASA and for NOAA's satellite programs written by SpacePolicyOnline.com Editor Marcia Smith are now available.
Copies can be downloaded from SpacePolicyOnline.com using the following links:
These fact sheets will be updated as the budget requests work their way through Congress. Note that when they are updated, the URL changes. To find the latest version, look under "Our Fact Sheets and Reports" on the left menu of our main webpage.
Note: This article was updated on February 12 with a new link to the NASA budget report, which itself was updated, and the explanation of how to find the most recent copies of these reports in the future.
NASA's FY2017 budget request seems certain to spark the same disputes with Congress that have characterized that relationship for much of the Obama Administration. The request cuts funding for three programs Congress holds as its highest priorities -- the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion spacecraft, and a robotic mission to Jupiter's moon Europa -- and requests more money for earth science, which is controversial in Republican circles. Confusion over whether NASA is requesting $18.3 billion or $19 billion is an additional complication this year.
Congressional reaction to the budget request could hardly be described as unexpected. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) blasted the request as one that "disproportionately increases Earth Science" while it "continues to tie our astronauts' feet to the ground and makes a Mars mission all but impossible."
Smith's Democratic counterpart, committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), did not specifically defend NASA's request. In her statement, the space program was mentioned only in passing. She praised the overall request for science and technology as ensuring that the United States "can compete in a 21st Century global economy" and listed civil space activities among the investments that help "meet our greatest challenges...for decades to come."
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, did not specifically mention NASA either, but called the budget request "wildly irresponsible" and said the "only positive news coming from this budget blueprint is that it is President Obama's last." Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who is Shelby's counterpart on the NASA subcommittee and also is vice chairwoman of the full Senate Appropriations Committee, similarly did not mention NASA in her statement. instead, she focused on the budget overall, praising it as one that she looks "forward to supporting through the appropriations process."
The programs likely to cause the most consternation as the budget process proceeds are SLS and Orion, which are being designed to take humans beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), the robotic Europa mission, and earth science.
SLS is managed by Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, Shelby's home state, and he has led congressional efforts to add substantial amounts for it in prior NASA budgets. The request for FY2017 is $1.31 billion, almost $700 million less than the $2 billion Congress appropriated for FY2016. The Orion spacecraft, which will be launched by SLS to take crews beyond LEO, also is cut, though to a lesser degree -- $1.12 billion requested versus $1.27 billion appropriated in FY2016.
Meanwhile, NASA is requesting $1.185 billion for the commercial crew program. While that is slightly less than the $1.244 billion in FY2016, Congress has been lukewarm, at best, about commercial crew since it began in FY2011 and NASA has had to fight for every dollar. FY2016 is the first year that Congress appropriated the full request for the program.
Sending a probe to Europa is a passion of Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA. He is confident that NASA will find signs of life there, making this a mission of critical importance in his view. He has added substantial funds for such a mission for the past three years. In the FY2016 budget, he funded the program at $175 million (the request was $30 million), specified that it include a lander as well as an orbiter and that it be launched in 2022 using SLS. For FY2017, NASA is requesting only $49.6 million and projecting a launch in the late 2020s on an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV), not SLS. (NASA Chief Financial Officer David Radzanowski stressed today during a media telecon describing the budget request that NASA is not precluding an SLS launch, but does not have pricing details yet on which to base a cost estimate.) NASA's budget documents say that accelerating the mission from the late 2020s to 2022 "is not recommended, given potential impacts to the rest of the Science portfolio." As required, NASA provided the budget profile that would be needed to achieve a 2022 launch: $194 million in FY2017, $272 million in FY2018, $456 million in FY2019, $678 million in FY2020, and $482 million in FY2021.
Not only does the request not include the type of Europa mission Culberson has in mind, but it cuts overall funding for planetary exploration, which is very popular on Capitol Hill. The request is $1.519 million, $112 million less than the $1.631 million appropriated for FY2016.
Meanwhile, the agency is asking for another increase for its earth science program, $2.032 billion compared to the $1.921 billion appropriated for FY2016. Smith and other Republicans are particularly opposed to NASA spending on earth science. Part of the controversy is tied to the climate change debate, while another objection is that NASA should be spending its money on exploring the universe, not studying the Earth, which other agencies can do.
The debates over SLS, Orion, commercial crew and earth science are familiar ground. While it is always risky to try to estimate what Congress will do, it seems likely that the arguments over the next several months will follow a predictable path.
One additional complication this year is that NASA describes its budget request as $19 billion, but it actually is $18.3 billion for funds that are within the jurisdiction of the appropriations committees. The remainder is what NASA is calling "mandatory" funding that is outside their purview.
The federal budget is divided into mandatory and discretionary spending. As those words imply, mandatory spending must be spent because of laws already in force that set out requirements for the funds to be paid, such as Social Security or Medicare payments to people eligible for benefits. Mandatory spending also includes interest that must be paid on the national debt, for example. Discretionary spending is the money that Congress debates each year through the appropriations process for agencies ranging from the Department of Defense to the National Institutes of Health to NASA. As Radzanowski explained today, mandatory spending consumes approximately three-quarters of the federal budget, with discretionary spending making up the other quarter.
As NASA's budget documents show, the $19.025 billion NASA budget request is composed of $18.262 billion from discretionary spending and $763 million in mandatory spending. The $763 million is part of $4 billion the Obama Administration hopes to obtain from the mandatory side of the ledger to fund R&D across the government that is outside the budget caps the President and Congress agreed to last October. A White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) fact sheet released today says "$4 billion of the overall $152 billion investment in R&D [in FY2017] is new mandatory funding" that ensures adequate R&D investments.
Apparently the idea is to cut mandatory spending and redirect some of it to R&D. OMB's FY2017 budget book states that it includes "117 cuts, consolidations, and savings proposals, which are projected to save over $14 billion in 2017." That is comprised of $5.9 billion in savings under the discretionary part of the budget and $8.2 billion in savings in mandatory spending. Some of those savings would be directed to other purposes as detailed in Table S-9 of the OMB document. Included is $664 million for NASA that would be spent ("outlayed") over three years ($325 million in FY2017, $283 million in FY2018, and $56 million in FY2019). In addition, President Obama is proposing a 10-year "21st Century Clean Transportation System" funded by a fee to be paid by oil companies. NASA's aeronautics program would receive part of those funds -- $100 million in FY2017 -- to develop a low carbon emission aircraft according to OSTP Director John Holdren at his own budget briefing today.
The $664 million to be obtained from cuts to mandatory spending and redirected to NASA, plus the $100 million for NASA's aeronautics program from the 21st Century Clean Transportation System, are what comprise the $763 million in "mandatory" spending that NASA includes in its $19 billion request (the $1 million difference is a rounding error) according to knowledgable sources.
How realistic it is that any of that $763 million will ever actually exist, not to mention the process by which Congress would allocate it to NASA if it did, are open questions. From a practical standpoint, at least as far as SpacePolicyOnline.com has been able to determine today, congressional appropriators are being asked to fund NASA at $18.3 billion and the rest of it is hypothetical. Indeed, Table S-11, "Funding Levels for Appropriated ('Discretionary') Programs by Agency," in OMB's budget book shows the President's request for NASA as $18.3 billion.
It may not matter, though. The Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Budget Committees made it clear last week that they consider the President's budget request irrelevant. Coupled with the Obama Administration's decision to continue the same NASA budget battles as prior years, the situation suggests that Congress will forge its own path. It substantially increased funding for NASA above the President's request in FY2015 and FY2016 and NASA advocates undoubtedly are hoping that the same will hold true for FY2017 regardless of whether one considers the request to be $18.3 billion or $19 billion.
Update: The sentence about the $18.3 billion in OMB's Table S-11 and the link to the OMB budget book in the next to last paragraph was added for clarity.
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