As next year’s NASA budget is being written by the House and Senate appropriations committees, a potential fight is brewing between the White House and NASA. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has, on several occasions over the past three months, publicly taken the position that proposed congressional appropriations bills will do real harm to the ability of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) to launch astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) before 2018. These same concerns were raised in a recent veto threat by the White House.
Some in the commercial space activist community have responded to the congressional funding bills with dismay, claiming that money is being removed from the CCP for the benefit of the Orion and Space Launch System (SLS) programs. And a few such activists have ascribed congressional funding levels as purely political.
Looking at the White House’s proposed funding levels for key programs such as Orion and SLS in light of current authorization levels provides clarity to funding decisions by congressional appropriators. And the contrast becomes even more sharper when unilateral actions undertaken by NASA senior management to negate sections of public law covering the Orion and SLS program are taken into account. The result is a situation much less black-and-white than may first appear.
Governing all things NASA is the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, which emerged in Congress as a response to the Obama Administration’s decision to cancel Constellation, NASA’s then Moon program. The 2010 Authorization was, after several public hearings, overwhelmingly approved by veto-proof, bipartisan majorities in the Senate and House in late-September 2010. Once signed by President Obama on Oct. 11, 2010, the Act became Public Law 111–267 (42 U.S.C. 18323). Within the Act are several provisions that specified funding for key NASA line items for fiscal years 2011 through 2013 as well as key capabilities for the Orion and SLS programs.
Which brings us to the fight over the current fiscal year 2016 NASA budget. On June 10, the Senate Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee approved the FY 2016 markup, which includes NASA funding. The Subcommittee appropriated $1.2 billion for the Orion crewed spacecraft, $1.9 billion for the Space Launch System, and $900 million for Commercial Crew. The response to this appropriations markup from commercial space activists was as predictable as it was strong. Many claimed that Congress had increased the Orion and SLS budget to the detriment of commercial access to ISS and in order to keep space jobs in their states.
But in the FY 2016 budget for the Orion and SLS programs, appropriators did not give Orion an extra $104 million, SLS an extra $544 million, nor Commercial Crew a decrease of $300 million. Instead, appropriators established funding to these programs of record from amounts proposed by the Administration to something closer to authorized levels, as mandated in (42 U.S.C. 18323) PL 111–267 Sec. 103 (1) (A, B, E).
FY 2013 authorizations in Sec. 103 (1)(A) for Orion and (B) SLS are $1.4 billion and $2.64 billion. The White House requested for Orion $1.096 billion and for SLS $1.3565 billion in FY 2016. That leaves a deficit of -$0.304 billion and -$1.284 billion from authorized funding levels for each of Orion and SLS. In requesting only 78 percent and 51 percent of authorized funding for Orion and SLS respectively for FY 2016, the Administration did not “fully” funded either program.
The currently authorized level for FY 2013 of $500 million for commercial crew is certainly due for an increase. H.R. 810, NASA Authorization Act of 2015, which passed the House by voice vote on Feb. 10, 2015, would authorize $805 million for Commercial Crew. The White House’s request for Commercial Crew of $1.2 billion represents a 140 percent increase over the last authorized levels and a 49 percent over proposed House authorized funding levels. The House and Senate appropriations levels for Commerical Crew represent an increase of 24 percent and 11 percent respectively. From the viewpoint of Senate appropriators, they have only brought proposed funding for Orion and SLS back up to what it should have been while giving Commercial Crew a large increase.
Some might claim that funding space programs at those amounts legislated for fiscal year 2013 as inappropriate since that was three years age, but until subsequent authorization or reauthorization, the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 remains in force.
The space program budget battles of the last five years have created a deep divide between congressional space supporters of both parties and the White House. In its Views & Estimates of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology U.S. House of Representatives For Fiscal Year 2016, House Science, Space, and Technology Commitee Chairman Rep. Smith notes:
“For the fourth budget request in four years, the Administration has set a budget for the Space Launch System and Orion crew vehicle which are inadequate to support the original launch date for these systems. Last year, NASA completed a key decision point that delayed the launch of these systems in favor of funding other less important Administration priorities. For the past several years, Congress has authorized and appropriated more funding for these systems than the Administration requested because Congress believes in the importance space exploration in spite of the President’s budget request. The Administration has routinely sought to undermine this priority, and does so again with its FY 2016 budget request. The Committee does not support the Administration’s request for the Space Launch System and Orion crew vehicle as it is insufficient to accomplish the stated goals and milestones for the program.”
Regardless of specified FY 2013 or FY 2015 funding authorization for Commercial Crew, NASA Administrator Bolden has gone on a publicity effort claiming the agency needs the $1.2 billion the White House recommended in order for both Boeing’s CST–100 and SpaceX’s Dragon 2 to be operational at the same time for purposes of ISS access redundancy. But by law, a backup for ISS crew access already exists in Orion and SLS. And NASA leadership’s efforts to circumvent this law has only created another flashpoint between the White House and congressional space supporters.
During hearings before the House and Senate in mid–2014, NASA Administrator Bolden admitted that, on his own, he made the determination that the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, Sec. 303(b)(3) and Sec. 302(c)(1)(D) specifying that Orion and SLS are the backup for ISS crew access did not fit with NASA’s efforts to encourage commercial crew contractors participation. His reason for making this decision was that neither Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation, nor SpaceX would be willing to accept NASA commercial crew funding if Orion-SLS was available as a back to get crews to-and-from ISS.
AmericaSpace has repeatedly sought comment from NASA regarding the agency’s effort to ignore Sec. 303(b)(3) and Sec. 302(c)(1)(D) of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, all inquiries have been ignored.
NASA’s unilateral and legaly questionable act has had real effects upon the Orion program in particular. In order for the Orion spacecraft to fulfill its Sec. 303(b)(3) responsibility to serve as a backup to ISS crewed access, a trajectory or mission design for ISS approach and docking is needed. Yet, most significantly, the spacecraft has no GNC sensor suite to allow docking with ISS. Sensors needed for docking with ISS on Orion are: a set of cameras (visible and IR) and a set of laser ranging/imaging sensors that will be needed to safely approach ISS and dock. Also GN&C system software will needed to be developed for Orion to dock with ISS. None of this is planned for Orion. To gain this capability would take at a minimum of a year.
A clear and firm congressional response to NASA’s efforts to negate sections of current law requiring SLS and Orion be the backup to crewed access to ISS can found in Sec. 203(a) and Sec. 204(a-b) of the NASA Authorization Act 2015, H.R. 810. Sec. 203(a)(1) states,
“the Space Launch System is the most practical approach to reaching the Moon, Mars, and beyond, and Congress reaffirms the policy and minimum capability requirements for the Space Launch System contained in section 302 of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2010.”
Sec. 204(a) affirms that,
“[t]The Orion crew capsule shall meet the practical needs and the minimum capability requirements described in section 303 of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2010.”
But it is Sec. 204(b) that puts NASA, and particularly the Administrator, under the microscope by requiring,
(b) Report.–Not later than 60 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Administrator shall transmit a report to the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate–
(1) detailing those components and systems of the Orion crew capsule that ensure it is in compliance with section 303(b) of such Act (42 U.S.C. 18323(b));
(2) detailing the expected date that the Orion crew capsule will be available to transport crew and cargo to the International Space Station; and
(3) certifying that the requirements of section 303(b)(3) of such Act (42 U.S.C. 18323(b)(3)) will be met by the Administration.
Much of the disagreement between Congress and the White House over the Administration’s proposed NASA budget for 2016 can be chalked up to the Obama Administration’s decision to fund key space programs at levels far below those outlined in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 while funding to a surplus programs it prioritizes, a pattern that stretching back to 2011. Efforts such as a June 14, 2011, letter from then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to President Obama requesting that the proposed NASA budgets reflect funding levels outlined in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 apparently fall on deaf ears, as the White House has never submitted a NASA budget in-line with funding levels in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010. Instead, the White House’s annual efforts to cut programs of record such as Orion and the Space Launch System have only led to annual congressional appropriations reversing such proposed cuts.
In the eyes of congressional appropriators, regarding funding for Orion, Space Launch System, and Commercial Crew Congress is balancing the requirements of current law and the budget act. A reading of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 would appear to support that point of view. And the House-passed NASA Authorization Act of 2015 is but the latest chapter in this struggle that the Obama White House is unlikely to win.Missions » SLS »