Bridenstine Implores Congress to Finalize FY2020 Appropriations for Desperately Needed HLS

Bridenstine Implores Congress to Finalize FY2020 Appropriations for Desperately Needed HLS

Speaking at a Space Transportation Association (STA) event on Capitol Hill today, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine implored Congress to finalize FY2020 appropriations rather than keeping NASA funded by Continuing Resolutions (CRs) — or worse, allowing a shutdown.  In particular, funding for Human Lander Systems (HLS) is “desperately” needed to meet the White House’s goal of returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024.

Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 began more than two months ago on October 1, but Congress has not passed any of the FY2020 appropriations bills, including the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill that funds NASA.  The House and Senate have passed their respective versions and are negotiating on a compromise, but its fate is tied in with other appropriations bills and the overall tense political climate in Washington.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

In the meantime, the government is operating under a CR that expires on December 20.  Under a CR, agencies are held to their prior year spending levels and cannot begin new programs or terminate existing ones.

That’s a special problem for NASA, which received a directive from the White House on March 26, after the FY2020 budget request was sent to Congress, to accelerate efforts to return humans to the Moon by four years, from 2028 to 2024.  That later was named the Artemis program.  The White House submitted a supplemental budget request on May 13 for $1.6 billion on top of the $21 billion originally requested in order to kick start Artemis.

NASA has been working for years on key elements needed to return astronauts to the Moon including the Space Launch System rocket, Orion crew spacecraft, and more recently a Gateway space station that will be placed in lunar orbit where astronauts will transfer from Orion to landers that will take them down to and back from the surface.

NASA did not think landers capable of supporting humans would be needed until 2028, however, and work has not begun.  Now they must be designed, built, tested and ready for operational use in just 5 years.  Of the $1.6 billion supplemental, $1.045 billion is for HLS.  The original budget request included $383 million making the FY2020 request for HLS a total of $1.408 billion.

The White House has not revealed how much more money will be needed in future years for HLS or other parts of Artemis.  It says that will be spelled out in the FY2021 budget request.

NASA is intent on acquiring HLS systems through public-private partnerships and quickly.  Companies were required to submit bids on November 5 and NASA wants to award contracts in January.

That could be a problem if NASA is still operating under a CR.   Whether HLS is a “new” program that cannot begin under a CR is a matter for lawyers to decide, Bridenstine said today, but even if it can there is the matter of how much money will be available.

The House did not include any of the $1.6 billion in its CJS bill.  The Senate provided some, but not all.  The biggest cut, in fact, was to HLS.  It approved $744 million of the $1.045 billion supplemental and $44 million of that was specifically directed to the program office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL.  That leaves $700 million for hardware development.

Asked what the minimum funding level is for FY2020 to achieve the 2024 goal, Bridenstine replied that he appreciates the funding in the Senate bill, but remains hopeful of getting the full amount.  And he needs it soon if the contracts are to be awarded in January.  As to whether there is a cut off date after which 2024 no longer is possible, Bridenstine agreed there is, but “it is not December 20” when the existing CR expires. He said he does not know when it is.

Stressing that NASA and Artemis have broad bipartisan support in Congress, he pleaded with congressional staffers in the room to work as “diligently as possible” to get appropriations finalized and make Artemis a reality.

Landing people on the Moon is not his only concern either.  The commercial crew program, which will restore the ability to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil to the International Space Station, is “my highest priority.”  “We’re getting close” to the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon systems being ready to fly, but he would not commit to dates because tests are still underway.  In the meantime, NASA is in discussions with Roscosmos to buy additional seats on Soyuz rockets.  “Certainly we’re going to need another rocket for 2020, maybe for 2021, but hopefully we’re in a different situation then.”

Meeting the 2024 goal for Artemis was his major theme, though, and his message was clear. “We have to have your help, and I’m asking for it.”

This is the Artemis generation.  We need to take control of it. We need to own it. We need to make sure we don’t have another 50 years go by where we don’t have people living and working on another world. … Help us with this landing system that we need so desperately.”  — Jim Bridenstine


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