NASA, the perennially underfunded space agency, woke up to a nice surprise this morning: Congress wants to give the agency more money than it asked for. Republican leaders in Congress released a massive budget proposal for the 2016 fiscal year — and tucked within it is a substantial budget increase for NASA. The omnibus spending bill would give the US space agency close to $19.3 billion for next year. That exceeds the Obama administration's budget request of $18.5 billion for NASA and provides the agency with $1.27 billion more than it received for 2015. The extra money means NASA has a better chance of pulling off its primary missions on schedule.
With the budget, NASA scores a big win for its commercial crew program — the initiative that tasks private companies with building and operating spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The legislation provides $1.24 billion for commercial crew, the same amount requested by the Obama administration. That makes this the first time that Congress has matched the administration's requests for the program.
NASA scores a big win for its commercial crew program
With these funds, it's possible that the first launches under the commercial crew program could actually take place in 2017 as intended. On repeated occasions, NASA administrator Charles Bolden has lambasted Congress for not fully funding the program, arguing that the first launches would ultimately slip to 2018 without enough money. NASA has already ordered the first crewed flights from its commercial crew suppliers, SpaceX and Boeing, but no definitive launch dates have been set yet. A report accompanying the spending bill makes it clear that NASA should use the new funds it gets to ensure those launches happen in 2017.
The main motivation for the commercial crew budget increase seems to be ending NASA's reliance on Russia as soon as possible. Since the cancellation of the Shuttle program in 2011, NASA astronauts have been riding into space on the Russian Soyuz rockets, which cost around $80 million per seat. The commercial crew program is aimed at ending this dependent relationship, by getting American astronauts into space on American rockets again. But, NASA wound up buying six extra Soyuz seats for 2018, when it looked like the first commercial crew flights would be delayed. This new report notes that the money set aside for those extra flights can be reappropriated for the commercial crew program after SpaceX and Boeing become operational.
An animation of the CST-100 Starliner, which Boeing is building for NASA's commercial crew program. (Boeing)
NASA's other primary initiatives get big boosts in funding as well. The Space Launch System (SLS) — the giant expendable rocket NASA is building to take astronauts into deep space and on to Mars — will receive $2 billion, which is $300 million more than the program received for 2015; it's also $644 million above the administration's request for the program.
Within the SLS budget, $85 million will be used to develop an "advanced upper stage" for the rocket. That potentially refers to the Exploration Upper Stage that NASA wants to build. This upper stage comprises the top of the vehicle; when in space, it separates from the rest of the rocket and ignites its engine, carrying payloads — or people — deeper into orbit. The upper stage that NASA is building for SLS right now can only carry 70 metric tons into space, but with the Exploration Upper Stage, the rocket can transport up to 105 metric tons. It's this more powerful stage that will be used whenever astronauts are aboard the rocket.
It's mostly good news all around
Additionally, NASA's Orion crew capsule, which would ride on top of the SLS and carry these astronauts, will receive $1.27 billion — $70 million more than it got last year. That's good news for the program, which has received a few setbacks partly because of budget constraints. The first crewed test flight of the Orion was originally scheduled to occur no later than August 2021, but that flight will now occur no later than April 2023. The schedule was changed to better align with the program's budget, according to NASA associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier.
As for the rest of NASA's agencies, it's mostly good news all around. The Science division would receive nearly $5.6 billion, which is about $300 million more than what the administration requested. And hidden within that funding boost is a nice surprise for planetary scientists. The legislation sets aside $175 million for a mission to Jupiter's icy moon Europa, which is a leading candidate for finding extraterrestrial life in our Solar System. But rather than just send an orbiter to the moon, as NASA has been working on, the funding calls for a Europa orbiter with a lander component. The bill directs NASA to launch this mission on top of the SLS no later than 2022 — meaning we could land on the surface of Europa within the next decade.
Of course, all of these numbers aren't finalized yet. The House is expected to vote on the spending bill on Friday, December 18th, before Congress goes on break for the holidays.
A bigger budget and more jobs: NASA is hiring new astronauts and has opened the process to the public. Do you qualify for the position?