NASA Told by House to Do More with Less

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NASA has been told by the House of Representatives to do more with less this past Wednesday, when the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee approved a fiscal year 2014 appropriations bill that would give NASA $16.6 billion.

While that might seem like a lot of money, when adjusted in terms of actual spending power, the proposed budget is the lowest since 1986. However, the House expects NASA to accomplish more with less money, and some House members chastised officials at NASA for suggesting cuts to its Planetary Science program and funding for the Space Launch System (SLS).

What are the goals NASA is tasked with by the House?

The House of Representatives has tasked NASA with far more goals now than in 1986. These include goals in Earth Science, Planetary Science, Heliophysics, and astrophysics science, building a new heavy lift rocket, a new crew vehicle, the James Webb Space Telescope, supporting commercial crew development by private industries, and supporting the International Space Station.

The bill would support NOAA’s weather satellite efforts, which would provide full funding for the Joint Polar Satellite System ($824 million) and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite ($955 million) programs. Those programs have been identified by both Wolf and Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), chairman of the full appropriations committee as priorities to be fully funded.

The subcommittee’s bill would, among other things:

Ban a proposed mission to redirect an asteroid into lunar orbit where astronauts could visit the captured space rock in the 2020s using the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket and Orion crew capsule NASA is building.

Authorize only $1.2 billion for NASA’s Earth Science Division, about 30 percent less than what the division got in 2012 and 2013. Some of this money would be given to the Planetary Science Division, which manages a portfolio of robotic solar system missions that enjoys support in both the House and Senate. Planetary Science would be authorized for $1.5 billion, about what it had in 2012, and $300 million more than it wound up with for 2013.

Authorize $1.8 billion for SLS, without specifying how much should be spent on rocket development, ground infrastructure or program support. The subcommittee’s previous draft of the authorization bill dictated specific amounts of funding for different parts of the SLS program.

Authorize $1.2 billion for the Orion crew capsule, 7.7 percent more than in 2013 and even in 2012.

Authorize $700 million for the Commercial Crew Program, which aims to get at least one privately designed crew transportation vehicle ready to launch astronauts to the international space station before the end of 2017.

The budget proposed by the House is not likely to pass the Senate, at least not in its present form. Still, whenever cuts are implemented they can set programs back years, making it easier for other nations to compete against us.

NASA and the Obama administration proposed in a very different budget cuts to the Planetary Science part of the budget, including the SLS. Republican congressmen criticized these cuts.

According to Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the CJS subcommittee, in his opening statement:

This funding will keep NASA on schedule for upcoming flight milestones of the Orion crew vehicle and Space Launch System.”

Also, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) slammed NASA, saying that they

…have once again proposed damaging and disproportionate reductions in the planetary science budget without any substantive justification. The committee’s recommendation seeks to address these shortcomings while also achieving programmatic balance among projects, destinations, and sizes.”

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) spoke favorably about the increased SLS funding in the bill when compared to NASA’s version of their budget.

I think the real concern that so many have is that the agency continues to request an insufficient amount of funds.The bottom line is, we can’t afford to fall behind other nations in this launch capability.”

Why are certain Congressmen so strongly in favor of Planetary Science and the SLS program?

There are some House members who will automatically oppose anything President Obama is in favor of, and in supporting the Planetary Science program, these Congressmen can still appear to their constituents to be supporting science in general and NASA in particular.

NASA and the Obama administration argue that this support for the Planetary Science part of the overall budget takes away money and resources from other programs that could use it more.

Also, funding the SLS program would be expensive, and rockets would only be launched once every four years (2017, 2021, 2025), and even then it will only be lofting the dangerously overweight (for passengers anyways) MPCV.

The SLS is a $30 billion diversion for NASA, and a $30 billion waste for U.S. taxpayers. By funding SLS for two flights in ten years and so little else, this bill does not help the US compete, but rather it would set the US program behind China, SpaceX, and others.

The NASA Authorization Act of 2013, written by the subcommittee’s Republican  passed by a vote of 11 to 9, with no Democrats supporting the proposal. One Republican abstained. Before the House can vote on whether to send the proposal to the Senate the bill must still be approved by the full House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

The subcommittee bill authorizes $16.87 billion for NASA in both 2014 and 2015. This is at a level consistent with the across-the-board sequestration cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011, but about 5 percent lower than NASA’s budget in 2012.

In other words, long story short, NASA has been told by the House to do more with less. Hopefully, this under-funding won’t amount to the opposite possibility of doing less with less.

 

Written by: Douglas Cobb

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