New Funding Bill Temporarily Freezes NASA's Budget

WASHINGTON ? U.S. President Barack Obama on Dec. 22 signedinto law a short-term appropriations bill that will keep the federalgovernment, including NASA, funded at 2010 spending levels through March 4,according to a White House news release.

The temporary spendingmeasure, H.R. 3082, was adopted 193-165 by the U.S. House ofRepresentatives late Dec. 21.

Known as a continuing resolution, or CR, H.R. 3082 does notweigh-in on NASA, which means the agency would operate in the coming months atspending rates proportional to the $18.72 billion appropriated for all of 2010.In addition, NASA would be prohibited from initiating new programs and would berequired to continue funding the Moon-bound Constellation program Obama soughtto abandon in the $19 billion budgetblueprint for 2011 that was sent lawmakers in February.

In its enacted form, H.R. 3082 represents a dramaticdeparture from an earlier version drafted in the House and adopted there Dec. 8that would have funded the federal government for the remainder of fiscal year2011. That measure would have increased NASA spending by $186 million over 2010levels and provided authority to cancel Constellation contracts and initiatenew programs in the current fiscal year. U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii),chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, included similar language forNASA in draft omnibus legislation for 2011, but that measure stalled in theSenate under Republican opposition to earmarks contained in the $1.1 trillionfunding package.

Marion Blakey, president of the Aerospace IndustriesAssociation, a trade group here, said NASA and other federal agencies facechallenges under a continuing resolution.

"Operations vital to our national security and economicprosperity could suffer without full appropriations for these agencies,"she said in a Dec. 16 statement urging passage of the omnibus measure.

But congressional sources say the short-term CR, if extendedfor the full year, would provide all but $276 million of the fundingNASA sought for 2011, and that the bill's lack of specificity could affordthe agency discretion when it comes to spending the money.

For example, while the new law does not specify that aspecific pot of money be used to fund an additional space shuttle flight to theinternational space station as called for in the NASA Authorization Act of2010, the $3.1 billion appropriated for the space shuttle program in 2010 is morethan enough to pay for the mission, plus the two manifested shuttle missionsNASA plans to fly in 2011.

NASA spokesman Michael Cabbage said the agency is reviewingH.R. 3082, but that the measure would not hinder any plans to fly theadditional shuttle mission as called for in the NASA AuthorizationAct of 2010 that Obama signed into law Oct. 11.

"The continuing resolution by itself does not endangerthe extra shuttle mission, because on an annualized basis the continuingresolution provides enough funding to fly the mission," he said in a Dec.20 e-mail.

While H.R. 3082 provides no relief from a prohibition inlast year's appropriation that bars NASA from canceling Constellationcontracts, its lack of specificity for NASA programs gives the agency authorityto continue developing a multipurpose crew vehicle for deep space missions ascalled for in the authorization act. And because Congress provided $100 millionfor development of a heavy-lift rocket in the 2010 appropriation, NASA underthe CR could begin work on that or a similar vehicle as directed in theauthorization measure.

H.R. 3082 could pose potential problems for NASA's CommercialOrbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, a five-year-old effort tonurture development of commercial rockets and cargo vessels capable ofresupplying the space station. Obama requested $312 million for the effort in2011, a sum that greatly exceeds the $39.1 million appropriated in 2010.However, while H.R. 3082 requires agencies to honor 2010 spending ceilings forindividual accounts, it does not require those agencies to fund individualprograms at specific levels, giving NASA some wiggle room in applying the $3.7billion it will have to spend on exploration in 2011 to cover the COTSshortfall.

However, the agency could face other obstacles in moving outon commercial crew initiatives this year. Under Obama's 2011 budget proposal,NASA would have received $500 million to foster privately built rockets andspacecraft capable of ferrying astronauts to and from low Earth orbit. Butbecause the program is new, and was not funded in the 2010 appropriation, NASAcould be left to await new appropriations legislation before it can getstarted.

Thisarticle was provided by Space News, dedicated to covering allaspects of the space industry.

Have a news tip, correction or comment? Let us know at community@space.com.