Yesterday, a House Appropriations subcommittee approved a draft NASA FY 2016 funding bill. As expected, the bill was set at the same overall funding level as that offered up by the Administration, at $18.592 billion.
To that extent, the bill is non-controversial, but that is also about as far as it goes. Once again, the House, which is under Republican control, appears ready to shower money on the Space Launch System, offering up a combined total of $2.313 billion, contrasted against $1.766 billion in the Administration request. Specifically, the committee’s bill combines $1.85 billion for SLS itself, with $410 million from ground systems along with $53 million from a new line item called “program integration.”
By comparison, the Commercial Crew budget was cut from the Administration request of $1.24 billion to an even $1 billion. While the 2016 amount is greater than last year’s $805 million, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has stated repeatedly that if his agency does not receive full funding for Commercial Crew, then he will have to renegotiate contracts with both Boeing and SpaceX, and the date of first operational flight will slip from 2017 to 2018. Bolden has also cautioned Congress that adding more money to the SLS budget will not speed up the date of first launch, as the Orion capsule is the pacing item.
That was not all for SLS however. The House committee also increased funds for a potential automated mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, from a tepid $30 million in the request, all the way $140 million, which would be enough to mark a serious start. There is one very large caveat however. The bill mandates that SLS be used, and that it much launch the spacecraft by 2022. Under normal circumstances, NASA’s Launch Services Program would evaluate for themselves which booster would best fit the needs of any given science mission. With the nature of a future Europa orbiter yet to be defined, nor a critical decision regarding its power source (solar v nuclear) resolved, the Congressional mandate for SLS, as well as a time line which NASA does not believe it can meet, has significant implications for other prospective missions under consideration.
The subcommittee bill will now move on to the full House Commerce-Justice-Science markup on May 20th.