U.S. Congress approves NASA's 2002 budget

Posted: November 8, 2001

The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate passed a compromise version of the 2002 budget for NASA on Thursday, approving funding for a Pluto mission but deleting money intended for a crew return vehicle for the International Space Station.

After a House-Senate conference committee completed work Wednesday reconciling differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget, the House approved the budget by a 401-18 vote Thursday afternoon. The Senate followed later in the day by an 87-7 vote.

The budget Congress agreed to, part of a larger budget bill that funds the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development as well as various independent agencies, gives NASA $14.8 billion for fiscal year 2002, which started October 1. This is about $300 million more than what the Senate, closely following the budget proposal by President Bush, approved, but is about $150 million less than what the House approved. NASA received $14.3 billion in fiscal year 2001.

A key difference between the House and Senate versions of the budget involved funding for a crew return vehicle (CRV) for the International Space Station, which would allow station crews to return home in an emergency. The president's original proposal had eliminated funding for it as well as habitation and propulsion modules for the station. The Senate's budget was along those lines, but the House version added $275 million to start work on a CRV.

The conference committee decided that the uncertain state of the space station meant it was premature to start spending money now on a CRV, but did not rule out funding a vehicle in the future. The conference committee's report concluded that the concept of a "core complete" station, without a CRV or habitation module, was "ill-defined", and that the station program as a whole was in need of serious study.

The committee also decided to reduce the overall budget for ISS by $75 million in 2002 in part to send NASA a strong message that the agency needs to better manage the program. "The conferees have reached the conclusion that the only way management will actually manage the program, and thereby get its costs under control, is through being forced to live with less," the conference report stated. "The conferees are reluctant to take this approach, but find that the intransigent management cannot be trusted to make the tough decisions on their own and must be forced to make decisions which are in the long-term interest of the program."

In a related move, the committee agreed to transfer $283.6 million in ISS research funds from the ISS account in the NASA budget to a separate account for biological and physical research. The move will still allow the funds to be spent on ISS research, and will keep the money safe from any effort by the space agency to "reprogram" the funds to cover ISS cost overruns.

Pluto mission funded
Another major decision by the committee was to fund initial development of a mission to Pluto. The Senate had included $25 million in its version of the budget for such a mission, while the House had no funding for it. The committee decided to give $30 million for the Pluto mission in 2002, enough for NASA to select a design for the mission and begin development of it.

Funding for a Pluto mission had been in question for over a year, after NASA stopped work on its own Pluto spacecraft in September 2000. In late 2000 NASA released a call for proposals for a new Pluto mission design, but planned in late February of this year to cancel the competition when the Bush Administration's budget blueprint included no funding for such a mission. At the request of Congress, however, NASA continued the competition, and later selected two proposals for further study. Those studies have been completed, and NASA is expected to choose the winning proposal within the next few months.

NASA and scientists had hoped to launch a Pluto mission as soon as December 2004, but funding delays and limitations acknowledged in the conference report could push that launch back to early 2006. This is the latest date that a mission could launch and use a Jupiter gravity assist to reach Pluto within 10-12 years. Scientists are eager to get to Pluto in the next 20 years because of concerns that changing illumination patterns will keep some portions of the planet in the dark during the flyby, and that cooling temperatures may cause the planet's tenuous atmosphere to freeze out.

"This is a victory for public interest," said Louis Friedman, executive director of The Planetary Society and a strong advocate for a Pluto mission. "The people let Congress know that they want NASA to explore Pluto -- the only remaining unexplored planet in our solar system -- and Congress responded."

Conferees also added $10 million to NASA's Sun-Earth Connections program that studies the effects of the Sun on the Earth, plus an additional $3 million for the proposed Solar Probe mission. The committee left intact the full funding for NASA's Mars programs, but requested that the space agency submit a detailed five-year plan for missions beyond 2007.

The conference report left largely intact that $465 million budgeted for the Space Launch Initiative (SLI), a five-year, $4.5-billion effort to develop the technologies needed for the next generation of reusable launch vehicles. Some in Congress and NASA have suggested that SLI funding would be better spent to cover cost overruns in the ISS program, but the committee elected not to touch the funding at this time.

Overall, NASA made out considerably better than some had expected. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks there were reports that NASA and other non-defense agencies could take as much as a 10 percent cut in 2002 to cover the costs of war and recovery efforts without endangering the budget surplus. However, Congress decided that the combination of the war effort and an economic recession were sufficient cause to increase spending, even if it meant incurring a budget deficit.

The outlook for fiscal year 2003 is hazy, a combination of uncertainty over the war and economy as well as the identity of the person who will succeed Dan Goldin as NASA administrator. There are concerns that NASA may have to take a budget cut, and the agency's role in the International Space Station is likely to be reexamined. The first proposed 2003 budget will likely not be released before February 2002.