NASA gets additional funding for fiscal 2016 – with a catch
It is Christmas time at NASA. The gift given to the U.S. space agency is an additional $1.27 billion more than what the Obama administration had requested. As is the case with all “gifts” from politicians – this present comes with at least one small catch.
The omnibus spending bill that Congress has presented for fiscal 2016 has allocated NASA $19.3 billion with the additional funds going to several specific projects and departments.
The omnibus bill covers more than just NASA, however. The yearly legislation handles federal budget guidelines for many departments, in essence, combining a large number of appropriations bills into a single bill that can be passed easier than trying to work each individual bill through the Congressional system.
After years of cuts, planetary sciences would get an increase in spending this year. Congress approved $270 million more for planetary research, bringing the total for planetary research to $1.631 billion. This will include $175 million for a mission to Europa, the icy moon of Jupiter. That mission will include an orbiter and a lander, according to the bill presented.
The Commercial Crew Program (CCP) will receive the exact amount requested by the Obama administration – $1.2438 billion. This avoids the cuts that were presented by both the House and the Senate earlier this year. The bill would also move the CCP to the Space Operations account, the same one that the International Space Station is funded from. The Commercial Crew Program had been under the Exploration Systems budget previously.
United Launch Alliance (ULA) would be given a reprieve on their purchases of RD-180 engines from Russia. Language in the bill would allow the company to purchase as many engines as needed. The new language in the bill is designed to provide a more robust competitive environment for access to space.
According to a report appearing on Space News, ULA declined to bid on a GPS 3 launch contract set to begin in 2018, citing a lack of engine availability. SpaceX, therefore, won the contract by default. Senator John McCain, an opponent of additional RD-180 purchases, tried to convince his colleagues to keep the ban on Russian engines intact but failed to do so.
The new omnibus bill provides $227 million to jump-start the development of a U.S made replacement for the RD-180. Congress has mandated a new engine be available by 2019. Both Blue Origin, with its BE-3 and BE-4 engines, as well as Aerojet Rocketdyne, with its AR-1 engine, have been working to provide the U.S. with domestically-produced engines.
The biggest winner in the new NASA budget bill is the Space Launch System (SLS). The administration had originally given the program $1.36 billion in its budget, but that received a hefty increase to $2 billion in this new bill. Not only is it significantly higher than what the administration sought but also more than either the House or the Senate had considered. Within that increase are funds to create the Exploration Upper Stage, an enhanced system for the crewed SLS. That program is to be given no less than $85 million to complete the task. NASA officials have been concerned about completing the stage in time for launch. The new funds should alleviate those concerns.
The bill is expected to pass, but a late addition to the bill has been a cause for concern in some circles. Attached to the bill is CISA, a privacy bill that has been fought against for many years. Some believe that the provisions in CISA allow too much data to be collected under a cybersecurity policy that provides expansive immunity to companies collecting data. Ultimately the bill is expected to pass, CISA provision or not.
For experts within the industry, the spending bill is expected to serve the U.S. in its space efforts well.
“These investments represent a strong commitment to America’s human, robotic and science exploration programs,” said Dr. Mary Lynne Dittmar, Executive Director of the Coalition for Space Exploration. “The robust funding levels achieved in the omnibus will support the continuing development of America’s new space exploration systems – leading to the launch of Exploration Mission-1 in 2018. The Space Launch System and the Orion crew vehicle will take humans deeper into space than ever before.”
Joe Latrell is a life-long avid space enthusiast having created his own rocket company in Roswell, NM in addition to other consumer space endeavors. He continues to design, build and launch his own rockets and has a passion to see the next generation excited about the opportunities of space exploration. Joe lends his experiences from the corporate and small business arenas to organizations such as Teachers In Space, Inc. He is also actively engaged in his church investing his many skills to assist this and other non-profit endeavors.