If you're a space policy wonk, there's no better site than Jeff Foust's SpacePolitics.com for accurate and timely information.
This week, Jeff has kept us apprised of the final NASA numbers approved by Congress in the omnibus spending bill making its way towards President Obama for signature.
The bill also contains several policy provisions, which Jeff also details.
NASA's final total spending appropriation for Fiscal Year 2014 $17.65 billion, roughly what the White House requested, although the devil as always is in the details.
The White House requested $821 million for commercial crew, warning that any reduction in that number would extend NASA reliance on the Russian Soyuz beyond 2017. The Republican majority in the House approved only $500 million, apparently preferring to prime the pump of the Russian economy instead of ours. The Democratic majority in the Senate approved $775 million.
The final omnibus bill appropriates $696 million. $125 million or 15% less than what the Administration requested. This is consistent with Congressional behavior in recent years; over the prior three fiscal years, Congress cut commercial crew funding by 62% from the President's request.
NASA executives repeatedly warned Congress that any reduction in the President's request would extend reliance on Russia beyond 2017. Personally, I suspect there may have been a little fudging in that threat, but we'll see. NASA could downsize to one or one-and-a-half commercial partners. It's also possible that a partner could kick in more of their own money to accelerate the process. SpaceX certainly seems hellbent to stay one step ahead of the competition, so I can see Elon Musk spending more capital to get his crewed Dragon operational by 2016-2017, but that's just my own speculation.
Last week's announcement that the Administration will seek Congressional approval to extend the International Space Station to 2024 creates some breathing room for commercial crew, helping the business case for the commercial partners in that they'll know they have a destination for several years to come. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has informally commented at times that perhaps NASA may seek to privatize the agency's ISS operations in the 2020s, by which time the Bigelow Aerospace inflatable habitats will be operational, so the future remains bright for commercial crew despite Congressional cutbacks.
Elsewhere in the bill, Congress larded its favorite pork program, the Space Launch System, with another $3.1 billion. The White House requested $2.7 billion.
Congress still hasn't told NASA what to do with SLS, but at least the House failed its attempt to forbid the Asteroid Retrieval Mission. Jeff quotes this passage from the bill:
While the ARM is still an emerging concept, NASA has not provided Congress with satisfactory justification materials such as detailed cost estimates or impacts to ongoing missions. The completion of significant preliminary activities is needed to appropriately lay the groundwork for the ARM prior to NASA and Congress making a long-term commitment to this mission concept.
Jeff writes this morning that the House and Senate space subcommittees will now attempt to work out an authorization bill, which basically establishes the policy parameters for NASA programs. The subcommittee members could make another run at banning ARM, but the message sent by the omnibus bill may be to move on.