Chairwoman Johnson Worries NASA May Starve Science to Pay for Artemis

Chairwoman Johnson Worries NASA May Starve Science to Pay for Artemis

The chairwoman of the House committee that authorizes NASA activities is worried that NASA may starve science in order to pay for the Artemis Moon-by-2024 program. At a hearing today, she pointed to a request from the Trump Administration to allow NASA to shift money from other NASA accounts into the Moon program and comments by NASA officials that “hard choices lie ahead” as the source of her concern.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Chairwoman, House Science, Space, and Technology Committee

At a hearing on NASA’s science portfolio, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), chairwoman of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee, praised the groundbreaking findings from the agency’s science missions. Why then, she asked, would the Administration “even consider raiding science to pay for a Moon program”?

The Administration submitted a budget amendment to Congress on May 13 asking for $1.6 billion more in FY2020 to begin paying for the recently named Artemis program to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024.  Although NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine says repeatedly that he understands taking money from other parts of NASA to pay for Artemis would doom the program politically, the budget amendment requests permission for him to do just that.  The language proposed by the Administration is as follows:

Upon the determination of the Administrator that such action is necessary in support of establishment of a United States strategic presence on the Moon, the Administrator may, in this and subsequent fiscal years, transfer funds among appropriations available to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, including funds appropriated in prior Acts, to be available for the same purposes as the appropriation to which transferred: Provided, That no funds may be transferred from amounts that were designated by the Congress as an emergency requirement pursuant to the concurrent resolution on the budget or the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985. — OMB FY2020 Supplemental Budget Request

Johnson coupled that with recent reports that “NASA officials are stating that hard choices lie ahead and that NASA find money for the Moon program from within the agency’s other programs.”

No one in NASA or elsewhere in the Trump Administration will say publicly how much Artemis will cost. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) tried assiduously at the hearing to get that answer from Thomas Zurbuchen, the head of NASA’s science program.  Zurbuchen gave the same answer as others that they are working on those numbers, but do not have them yet.  (In fairness, his Science Mission Directorate is not in charge of the Artemis program.)

At the International Space Development Conference (ISDC) on Saturday, Scott Pace, Executive Secretary of the White House National Space Council, said a major sticking point is how much to include for reserves — funding allocated to cover “unknown unknowns” that inevitably arise in research and development programs.

NASA’s internal rules require that cost and schedule estimates have a 70-30 “Joint Cost and Schedule Confidence Level” (JCL), meaning that the likelihood of achieving the announced cost and schedule is 70 percent (and 30 percent that it will not). The higher the JCL, the more money that must be included as reserves, which may result in sticker shock at the beginning even if it means the estimate is reasonably accurate in the end.

At the May 31 NASA Advisory Council (NAC) meeting, Bill Gerstenmaier, the head of NASA’s human spaceflight program, said he knows how much new money is needed for Artemis, but he also knows NASA will not be getting it all as an addition to its top line like the $1.6 billion in the FY2020 supplemental. That was “easy” because not only was no money taken from other NASA programs, but it was spread around. Some went to science and some to space technology.  He does not expect that to be true in the future.

When we get to [FY2021], I don’t think we’re going to be able to get the entire budget as new money to the topline. We’re gonna have to look at efficiencies and a mix of cuts internal to the agency. That’s where it’s going to be hard.”  NASA’s Bill Gerstenmaier at May 31, 2019 NAC meeting

Johnson apparently was referring to those comments at the hearing. Taken together with the transfer authority requested in the budget amendment, she is worried about what all this means for NASA’s science programs.

Mark Sykes, Planetary Science Institute, testifies to House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, June 11, 2019. Screengrab

One of the witnesses, Mark Sykes of the Planetary Science Institute, agreed.  Calling the transfer authority request “disturbing,” he exclaimed “this must be rejected.”  He expounded on his concerns in his written statement.

If implemented, this would pose a grave danger to the American space program altogether. It would allow for the restructuring of the agency. Space science could be radically reduced or expunged. All of this would occur without any Congressional oversight. — Mark Sykes, Planetary Science Institute

Space subcommittee chairwoman Kendra Horn (D-OK) directly asked if NASA is planning to reduce science funding in future budget requests in order to shift funds to Artemis.  Zurbuchen replied he has not been directed to engage in any scenario planning like that.

It should be noted, however, that NASA budget officials said both last year and this year that one reason they are proposing termination of the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) is because some of that money is needed for the Moon program.  Those decisions were made to support NASA’s original 2028 date for returning humans to the lunar surface, not the accelerated 2024 date announced by Vice President Pence on March 26.

Congress rejected the proposal to terminate WFIRST in FY2019 and the House Appropriations Committee did the same for FY2020 this year, adding $510.7 million to keep it on schedule. It completely ignored the supplemental budget request.  The Senate Appropriations Committee has not acted yet.


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