On the surface, the funding that the Senate and House appropriations committees want to allocate for NASA in fiscal year 2013 isn't that much different from what they provided to the agency in recent years.
The total House NASA appropriation is $17.5 billion. Although the Senate appropriation would be a bit more -- $19.4 billion -- $1.6 billion of it would be to help the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration purchase satellites, leaving an effective budget of $17.8 billion, which is the amount of NASA's fiscal year 2012 budget. The proposed funding levels would also not be much different from past budgets, at least since the late 1970s, as a percentage of total federal spending (see bottom graph).
Below the surface, however, there are some noticeable changes in the House and Senate proposals from past years:
- Plutonium-238: The House bill would provide $14.5 million to restart production of plutonium-238, an isotope that is ideal for generating electricity for years in deep space, far away from solar power. Current American supplies of Pu-238, which was a byproduct of nuclear weapon development, are running out, forcing NASA to purchase it from the Russians. The Senate bill would appropriate the same amount.
- JWST: The James Webb Space Telescope, a space-based telescope that the House Appropriations Committee tried to eliminate last year, is fully back on track this year for a proposed 2018 launch, but not without some caveats in both the House and Senate committee reports. The cost overruns that led the House committee to try to end the JWST program last year are still very much on the minds of both House and Senate appropriators. Both chambers' committee reports require assurances and reports from NASA that the program will proceed within budget.
- NOAA: The Senate proposal, but not the House, includes funding to NASA to procure four weather satellites for NOAA. "It doesn't matter what agency buys the satellites. It matters that the procurement is managed frugally and gets us data and information we need," Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said in a statement. Mikulski is the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee in charge of NASA's budget. "Unfortunately, the Committee has lost confidence in NOAA's ability to control procurement costs or articulate reliable funding profiles. Therefore, we have taken the unprecedented step of transferring responsibility for building our Nation's operational weather satellites from NOAA to NASA," she said.
- Commercial Space Flight: As the traditional human-based space program is still in a state of some flux, and with the planned test launch of the commercial Dragon spacecraft this weekend, NASA is trying to foster a commercial space-flight program. NASA had sought $830 million to this end, but the House only approved $500 million. The Senate funding level would be a bit more at $525 million.
Although $17.5 billion, or thereabouts, sounds like a tremendous amount of money, in relation to the total federal budget, it's a small fraction of spending. NASA's budget peaked during the height of the space race in the mid- to late-1960s, and fell significantly thereafter. Whether the final FY2013 NASA budget is $17.5 billion or $19.4 billion (taking into account the NOAA satellite purchases), it also won't be more than 0.4 or 0.5 percent of total federal spending.