The 2,009-page omnibus bill that’s been crafted by Congress for the current fiscal year boosts NASA’s budget to $19.3 billion, which is $756 million more than the White House asked for.
The big winners include NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System and its planetary science projects – particularly a mission to Europa, a mysterious ice-covered moon of Jupiter. The measure also provides as much as the Obama administration requested – $1.24 billion – for NASA’s commercial crew program. That suggests the space taxis that are being built for NASA by the Boeing Co. and SpaceX will remain on track for their debut in 2017.
The long-delayed spending plan for the budget year that started in October, released overnight, isn’t totally a done deal. The House and Senate still have to vote their approval, and that’s not expected to happen until Friday. Then President Barack Obama has to sign it into law. But all the pieces are in place, and today the White House gave the deal its thumbs-up.
Here are the bullet points:
- NASA’s Planetary Science Division gets $1.63 billion, about $270 million more than the White House’s budget request for planetary studies. The bill sets aside $175 million to support efforts to send an orbiter and a lander to Europa, which is thought to harbor a deep ocean of water, and potentially life, beneath its icy surface. NASA had requested just $30 million in fiscal 2016 to study a Europa mission. Such a mission wouldn’t be launched until the 2020s. The bill also supports continued operation of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter as well as the Opportunity rover on Mars – two long-running missions that were at risk of losing funding.
- The Space Launch System has been a popular program in Congress, so much so that some critics have nicknamed it the “Senate Launch System.” In the omnibus bill, lawmakers set aside $2 billion for the SLS program, which is $640 million more than the White House sought. The SLS is due to have its first uncrewed test flight in 2018, and it’s expected to start lofting astronauts beyond Earth orbit in 2023 or so. NASA sees the SLS and the Orion deep-space capsule as key parts of an infrastructure that will get astronauts to Mars and its moons in the 2030s.
- While Orion is meant to go beyond Earth orbit, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s upgraded Crew Dragon spaceships are being developed to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told lawmakers that the space taxis wouldn’t be able to start service on schedule in 2017 unless NASA could provide the companies with as much support as had been budgeted. Congress heeded Bolden’s words and decided not to short-change the program. NASA will have to keep paying the Russians $70 million per seat for rides to the space station until the taxis are ready – and that’s an issue that resonated with lawmakers.
- Some NASA programs are getting less than the White House requested: The Space Technology Mission Directorate would receive $686.5 million ($38 million less), and the Earth Science Division is down for $1.921 billion ($26 million less).
An earlier version of this story mistakenly used a “b” instead of an “m” when referring to the $70 million price tag for seats on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.