Political wrangling expected over NASA funding

By:  The Space Reporter – Andrew McDonald
Source: The Space Reporter

NASA has an ambitious spate of future missions on its roster, including additional Mars rovers and manned activities beyond low-Earth orbit facilitated by the upcoming Space Launch System. However, before any of those enterprises get off the ground, a political standoff looms over the agency’s funding.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee passed a three-year funding bill for NASA; the bill was approved along party lines, with 13 Democrats in favor and 12 Republicans opposed. The Democratic-led Senate is expected to pass the measure, pitting it against a bill under consideration in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

The Senate bill promises NASA $18.1 billion in fiscal year 2014, $18.4 billion in 2015, and $18.8 billion in 2016. In fiscal year 2013, which ends on September 30, NASA received $17.7 billion.

“While it’s not as much as we’d like NASA to have, it’s certainly a step in the right direction,” said Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida after the vote, quoted by USA Today. Nelson is the chair of the Science and Space Subcommittee that designed the bill.

In contrast, the House bill would provide NASA with approximately $16.8 billion for fiscal years 2014 and 2015. Republicans wish to restrict the funding allocation to the budget they approved earlier this year, which assumes that sequestration will remain in effect. Senate Democrats believe that NASA’s budget should be based upon what the agency actually needs.

The top Republican on the Senate committee, John Thune of South Dakota, asserted to the other panel members that the bill “will likely need even more work before (it) reflects the kind of consensus that has characterized our committee’s enacted legislation.”

Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington stated that the committee has “very important technology-mission oversight that we have to focus on.”

The Senate and House proposals not only diverge on funding, but also on the sort of missions NASA should carry out. Both bills would grant NASA sufficient funding to support its highest priorities, which include a manned mission to Mars, partnerships with aerospace companies to transport astronauts to the International Space Station, and deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope. However, the House bill would forbid the agency from carrying out an asteroid retrieval mission, part of NASA’s stepping-stone program to eventually reach Mars. The Senate bill would support the asteroid mission.

Senator Nelson was adamant that politics should not hinder science: “I don’t think that is the position of a committee to be telling the scientists and the NASA experts of what we should be doing.”