Artemis Wins Only Lukewarm Support in Final NASA FY2020 Appropriation

Artemis Wins Only Lukewarm Support in Final NASA FY2020 Appropriation

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees released the final versions of all 12 FY2020 appropriations bills today and hope to get them passed by the end of the week.  The Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill that funds NASA is combined with three others — Defense, Financial Services, and Homeland Security — into H.R. 1158, the “national security minibus.”  It includes $22.629 billion for NASA, almost exactly the same as the $22.616 billion amended request, but with different priorities than the Trump Administration.  Landing astronauts on the Moon by 2024 does not seem to be one of them. [UPDATE: The bill passed the House on December 17 and the Senate on December 19.]

The bill rejects Trump Administration proposals to terminate or postpone a number of programs, and only partially funds the supplemental request for the Artemis Moon-by-2024 program.  More than half the Artemis-related funding may not be obligated until NASA submits a multi-year plan explaining how it intends to execute that program and development of human lunar landers received far less than requested.

The $22.629 billion is broken down as follows:

  • Science: $7,138.9 million
  • Aeronautics: $783.9 million
  • Space Technology: $1,100 million
  • Exploration: $6,017.6 million
  • Space Operations: $4,140.2 million
  • STEM Engagement: $120 million
  • Safety, Security and Mission Services: $2,913.3 million
  • Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration: $373.4 million
  • Office of Inspector General: $41.7 million
Illustration of the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean, Ecosystem (PACE) satellite. Credit: NASA

For Science, the bill rejects the Administration’s proposed termination of two Earth science programs, PACE and CLARREO-Pathfinder, and the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST).  It also funds a new space-based telescope to search for Near Earth Objects (NEOs — asteroids and comets) that might impact Earth. Science Mission Directorate head Thomas Zurbuchen was not in favor of such a mission, but conceded in September that others, including Congress, want it and he would proceed if the money was appropriated.

As championed by former Rep. John Culberson in prior years, the bill continues to fund the Europa Clipper mission and requires NASA to develop a Europa Lander and that both spacecraft be launched on the Space Launch System (SLS).  However, it extends the dates for launching them by two years each.  Europa Clipper now may be launched in 2025 instead of 2023, and Europa Lander in 2027 instead of 2025.

The $7,138.9 million for science is divided as follows:

  • Earth Science: $1,971.8 million, of which $131 million is for PACE, $26 milion is for CLARREO-Pathfinder, $1.7 million is for DSCOVR (which the  Trump Administration tried to cancel in prior years), $200 million is for Venture Class missions and $25 million is for Earth Science Research and Analysis.
  • Planetary Science: $2,713.4 million, of which $300 million is for the Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program (LDEP), which funds robotic lunar landers and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LEO); $190.4 million is for Discovery missions; $502.7 millions is for New Frontiers missions; $35.6 million is for the NEO Surveillance Mission (successor to NEOCam); and an increase of $37.8 million above the request for Icy Satellites Surface Technology (the request was $2.2 million).
  • Astrophysics: $1,306.2 million, including $250.7 million for Astrophysics Research, $90.8 million for Hubble, $82.5 million for SOFIA, and $510.7 million for WFIRST (of which $65 million is for coronograph technology development) retaining the cost cap of $3.2 billion.
  • James Webb Space Telescope: $423 million, retaining the $8.803 billion cost cap from last year (which was an increase from the previous $8 billion cost cap).
  • Heliophysics: $724.5 million.

The Exploration portion of the budget, which includes most of the Artemis program, is funded at $6,017.6 million.  The bill continues strong congressional support for SLS, including the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS), the Orion crew spacecraft, and associated Exploration Ground Systems.  Those programs were already underway before Vice President Pence announced the Artemis program to get astronauts on the Moon in five years, which led to a $1.6 billion supplemental budget request for NASA in May.  The original request on March 11 was $21.019 billion, a cut from FY2019, but the supplemental increased it to $22.616 billion.

Illustration of astronauts on the Moon as part of the Artemis program. Credit: NASA

Of that $1.6 billion supplemental, $1.045 billion was for human lunar landers, in addition to $363 million that was in the original request in the Advanced Cislunar and Surface Operations account. That made the request $1.408 billion. The final bill provides $600 million, less than half the request.

NASA is in the middle of a competition to select companies to build the landers as public-private partnerships.  It hopes to award contracts next month.  Report language accompanying this bill expands on what was in the Senate version and directs NASA to prioritize proposals that “emphasize designs which reduce risk to schedule and engineering, and, above all, life.”  That might be interpreted as a preference for systems that use or are derived from existing technologies rather than entrepreneurial designs.

Importantly, the bill restricts NASA’s ability to obligate more than 40 percent of the funding for the human lunar landers as well as the Gateway, LDEP (except for LRO), and commercial LEO development until it submits a multiyear plan on how it will implement Artemis. The plan must include key milestones and funding estimates by fiscal year for Gateway, the human lunar landers and LDEP.  It must also provide dates for the following:

  • SLS flights “to build the Gateway” (NASA currently plans to use commercial rockets, not SLS, to launch the elements of the Gateway);
  • “the commencement of partnerships with commercial entities for additional LEO missions to land humans and rovers on the Moon”; and
  • “conducting additional scientific activities on the Moon.”

Overall, the $6,017.6 million Exploration budget is divided as follows:

  • SLS:  $2,585.9 million, of which $300 million is for EUS (rejecting the Trump Administration’s proposal to  postpone EUS development so Boeing, the SLS and EUS prime contractor, could focus on the SLS core stage).
  • Orion: $1,406.7 million.
  • Exploration Ground Systems: $590 million, including “no less than the request” for a second Mobile Launch Platform (the request was zero).
  • Exploration Research and Development: $1,435 million, of which $450 million is for  Gateway, $600 million is for Advanced Cislunar and Surface Activities (the human lunar landers), $140 million for the Human Research Program, and $245 million for Advanced Exploration Systems.

The $4.14 billion for Space Operations is not broken down.  However, report language specifies that only $15 million is for commercial LEO development, one-tenth the $150 million requested.  That is NASA’s program to facilitate development of commercial space stations to replace the International Space Station (ISS).

Illustration of a Nuclear Thermal Propulsion system. Credit: NASA

Space Technology will get $1.1 billion, including $110 million for Nuclear Thermal Propulsion, of which $60 million is for a flight demonstration by 2024; $227.2 million for a combination of the RESTORE-L program plus a SPace Infrastructure DExterous Robot (SPIDER) that it will carry as a secondary payload, with no less than $180 million for RESTORE-L; $48.1 million for solar electric propulsion; and $25 million for the Flight Opportunities Program, of which $5 million is for K-12 and college student educational payloads.

Congress once again rejected the Trump Administration’s proposal to terminate NASA’s education programs, now called STEM Engagement.  Total funding is $120 million: $48 million for Space Grant, $24 million for EPSCoR, $36 million for MUREP, and $12 million for SEAP.

The bill also continues the limitations on space cooperation with China by NASA, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and the White House National Space Council.

Overall, the bill demonstrates yet again that while the President proposes, Congress disposes, and that NASA funding is pretty much a bipartisan issue.  The fact that Democrats now control the House did not seem to have much effect on the outcome.

The difference in priorities between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue was evident in the rejection once again of Administration proposals to terminate PACE, CLARREO-Pathfinder, WFIRST and STEM Engagement programs, as well as providing $300 million for EUS when none was requested, but only one-tenth the funding for NASA’s new commercial LEO effort.

Artemis received lukewarm support and even that is contingent on NASA submitting a multi-year plan with funding and schedule details.  A notable change from the last several years is that Congress appropriated almost exactly the same amount as requested.  It had been adding significant sums above the requests from both the Obama and Trump Administrations.  This year’s May 13 supplemental for Artemis boosted the total request to a new high, however, and Congress matched it rather than exceeding it, illustrating that there are limits.  Time will tell if that is a harbinger of what is to come when NASA begins asking for the additional $4-6 billion per year it estimates is needed to achieve the 2024 Artemis goal.  The decision to provide less than half the request for the human lunar landers, a sine qua non for landing people on the Moon, already may seal the fate of that 2024 goal, a date tied to President Trump’s potential reelection.

Congress supports human exploration of the Moon and Mars, but does not seem to be in as much of a hurry to get there and using SLS and EUS is clearly a higher priority than commercial rockets as the Administration prefers.

The bill still must pass the House and Senate and be signed into law by the President.  Nothing should be taken for granted, but optimism is the watchword of the day for appropriators and congressional leadership who believe they have the White House’s agreement on this and the other 11 appropriations bills.


Note: this article has been updated.

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