Last week, a Senate Appropriations Committee “marked up” the FY 2016 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill which funds among other things, NASA. For supporters of several NASA programs, including Commercial Crew, it was a simply put, a very bad day. Despite repeated impassioned pleas from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to fully fund Commercial Crew at the requested level of $1.244 billion and avoid a slip past a 2017 first crew rotation, the Senate CJS committee reduced the amount to $900 million.
In response, the space agency released the following statement from Bolden:
“I am deeply disappointed that the Senate Appropriations subcommittee does not fully support NASA’s plan to once again launch American astronauts from U.S. soil as soon as possible, and instead favors continuing to write checks to Russia.
“Remarkably, the Senate reduces funding for our Commercial Crew Program further than the House already does compared to the President’s Budget. “By gutting this program and turning our backs on U.S. industry, NASA will be forced to continue to rely on Russia to get its astronauts to space – and continue to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into the Russian economy rather than our own. “I support investing in America so that we can once again launch our astronauts on American vehicles.”
Today, Marcia Smith at spacepolicyonline has a detailed writeup of a number of budgeting changes which will make it difficult for all but the most regular observers to keep up with what programs were cut, which were increased and by how much. It is worth noting that in addition to slashing Commercial Crew and pouring money into all facets of the Space Launch System at the behest of space state Senators, NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate was torched as well:
“NASA’s request was $725 million. The Senate committee cut that to $600 million, but it also shifted the Restore-L satellite servicing project from the Space Operations account into Space Technology and specified $150 million for that program alone. So in addition to cutting the total for space technology activities, a substantial amount is earmarked for a specific project that was not part of that request.”
With the overall budget headed for a likely impasse over the 2011 budget caps, nothing is certain, but based on the Senate’s actions, a 2017 flight by both Boeing and SpaceX seems increasingly unlikely. One key question is this:
Does NASA have the authority to shift funding timelines disproportionately between the two Commercial Crew vendors? If the authority exists, then one possible response is to recognize that for reasons malignant or benign, and it is hard to believe it is the latter, Congress has rejected the notion of two competing vendors moving at the same pace. The answer is to move to a de-facto leader follower arrangement and accelerate one at the expense of the other. And on that matter, there is no question who the leader should be.