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Senate sends NASA budget bill to president's desk

Posted: December 13, 2009

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The Senate passed an $18.7 billion budget for NASA on Sunday, sending to the White House a bill asserting new congressional oversight of the embattled Constellation moon program and funding a replacement climate satellite.

The omnibus spending bill, which also covers other areas of government, will fund NASA through next September. The House approved the measure last week. President Obama will likely sign the bill this week.

In the bill, appropriators inserted language shielding the Constellation program from termination without congressional approval. President Obama is considering alternatives for the future of the U.S. human space program after an independent committee said the moon project is unsustainable under current budget conditions.

The White House could continue with the Constellation program, add funding, or scrap the project in favor of a new plan.

Congress is providing $3.8 billion for NASA's exploration programs, as requested by the administration earlier this year.

"However, the bill requires that any program termination or elimination or the creation of any new program, project or activity not contemplated in the budget request must be approved in subsequent appropriations acts," legislators wrote in a summary report.

Obama has not announced when he will weigh in on the space program's future.

Congress is directing NASA to continue designing a heavy-lift cargo launch vehicle, providing $100 million to fund the work. The Ares 5 rocket is NASA's current design for such a booster.

Another $50 million in the NASA budget would go toward assessing satellite servicing capabilities for the manned Orion spacecraft, particularly for observatory-class scientific missions.

The 2010 budget bill provides a increase of $942 million over NASA's 2009 funding level. NASA has been operating under a continuing resolution at the previous year's budget.

The space shuttle program would receive almost $3.16 billion and the space station would get nearly $2.32 billion under the bill.

Congress also set aside at least $50 million to start a new project to replace the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, a carbon-monitoring satellite lost in a launch failure in February.

The budget provides $25 million in new funding and directed NASA to move at least $25 million in leftover money from the agency's science division to go toward an OCO replacement.

NASA has studied fielding a new platform to take the place of OCO, baselining a 28-month schedule to launch after a new project is formally started. Managers recommended flying a carbon copy of OCO, instead of designing a more advanced instrument or combining disparate payloads on a single satellite.

"This is very good news," said David Crisp, OCO's principal investigator at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "While it won't allow us to maintain a 28-month rebuild schedule, it will allow us to support critical team members, and to make some progress toward a reflight."

For now, the bill also avoids paying for an OCO replacement at the expense of other ongoing or future missions, such as the Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite and the ICESat 2 spacecraft.

Appropriators also highlighted the over-budget James Webb Space Telescope, the joint NASA-European observatory to replace the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014.

"The conferees are troubled by ongoing cost overruns and inaccurate phasing of reserves that have required (Congress) to approve multiple adjustments to Webb's funding levels," the bill report says.

The funding adjustments have totaled $95 million in the last six months, and more budget increases may be necessary next year, according to the bill.

The long-grounded Deep Space Climate Observatory would receive $5 million next year to continue refurbishment of two Earth science instruments. The funding supplements $9 million appropriated earlier this year to begin the testing.

The Air Force and NOAA are considering modifying the DSCOVR satellite for a mission to observe space weather at the L1 libration point a million miles from Earth.

DSCOVR was conceived by former Vice President Al Gore as an Earth science mission to provide continuous views of the planet from the L1 location. Scientists later added payloads to measure Earth's radiation budget and the space weather environment.

The mission was quietly cancelled in 2005, and the satellite was put in storage until new testing began last year.

NASA has studied options to launch DSCOVR on its original Earth observation mission, an Air Force/NOAA mission focusing on space weather, or an in-the-middle concept to study both.

It would cost at least $138 million to launch the spacecraft, depending on its specific mission and rocket availability. The study concluded mission costs could soar to more than $300 million.