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Commercial Crew Gets Reprieve in NASA Operating Plan

Of the money Planetary Science would lose, about $44 million would go to the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: Northrop Grumman artist's concept

WASHINGTON — NASA wants to reshuffle its 2013 budget to fund a post-shuttle crew transportation program at an all-time high and shore up the James Webb Space Telescope and Earth Science Division with funds siphoned out of the Planetary Science Division.

The changes are part of an operating plan delivered to NASA’s congressional overseers the week of May 27, according to a government source who has seen the document. The latest operating plan details changes NASA wants to make to its 2013 budget, part of the Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013 (H.R. 933) that was signed March 26 and funds federal agencies through Sept. 30.

The entire spending bill was subject to the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration, and NASA’s portion of the bill was subject to an additional, smaller cut devised by lawmakers to protect select federal programs from the sequester. According to NASA’s operating plan, the space agency ended up with about a $16.9 billion top line for 2013, roughly $900 million below the level it had been held to since 2011 but slightly more than the agency had feared. 

The Commercial Crew Program, in which NASA is paying competing companies to design and develop crew transportation systems the agency could use to transport astronauts to the international space station by 2017, would get exactly the level of funding prescribed by H.R. 933 before either sequestration or Congress’ rescission is factored in: $525 million. That marks about a 30 percent increase compared with 2012 levels. 

The money for Commercial Crew came out of the space operations account, using funds originally budgeted for a space shuttle closeout effort that has since winded down, according to the government source who saw the operating plan. 

Meanwhile, NASA’s Planetary Science Division, which is charged with exploring the solar system with robotic probes, would lose about $110 million of its 2013 appropriation under NASA’s proposed operating plan, leaving the division with $1.2 billion for 2013 — in line with the White House’s request for this year, and about $300 million less than in 2012. 

Of the money Planetary Science would lose, about $44 million would go to the James Webb Space Telescope and about $66 million would go to the Earth Science Division, the government source said.  

NASA’s authorization and appropriations committees have the opportunity to object to the changes the agency proposed and send the operating plan back to NASA for an overhaul. At least one “deeply disappointed” lawmaker said that he might. 

“Once again, NASA has chosen to disregard the expressed will of Congress with regards to planetary science,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said in a written statement emailed to SpaceNews June 7. “I will be working with my House and Senate colleagues to push back on these cuts.” Schiff is a member of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee that drafts NASA spending bills, and whose district includes the heavily planetary science-focused Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Meanwhile, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and its carrier rocket the Space Launch System (SLS) would be funded at essentially the same levels as 2012. The SLS account, which includes not only vehicle development but the ground systems necessary to launch the massive rocket, would be receive roughly $1.8 billion, according to the government source. Orion would get about $1.1 billion. 

However, Congress proposed giving SLS a boost in H.R. 933, which would have provided about $300 million more in 2013 for the rocket and its ground systems than the NASA operating plan proposes.

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