FY2023 Funding for NASA Takes Another Step Forward, NEO Surveyor Gets A Boost

FY2023 Funding for NASA Takes Another Step Forward, NEO Surveyor Gets A Boost

Today the House Appropriations Committee approved the funding levels for NASA recommended by its Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee last week. The committee reduced NASA’s funding by half a billion dollars compared to the request, but it is $1.4 billion more than the current level. One program that got more than requested is the asteroid-hunting NEO Surveyor, pushing back on NASA’s proposal to delay it for at least two years.

The committee approved $25.45 billion for NASA, a substantial increase over the $24.04 billion it received for FY2022, but less than the $25.97 billion requested by the Biden Administration.

No changes were made to the subcommittee’s recommendations last week.

Although the total is less than requested, overall the committee is quite supportive of everything NASA is doing. The funding difference is a combination of additions and reductions for various programs across the agency.

The Science Mission Directorate was reduced from a request of $7.99 billion to $7.09 billion, but that is $291 million more than FY2022.  Earth science bore the brunt of the reduction. The committee approved $76.7 million less than the $2.33 billion requested, but that’s still $270 million more than FY2022.

Astrophysics and Biological and Physical Sciences got smaller cuts, heliophysics was funded at its requested level, and planetary science got a bit more, $3.20 billion instead of $3.16 billion.

The plus-up in planetary science will partially cover the $55 million increase for NEO Surveyor, a space-based infrared telescope designed to locate and track Near Earth Objects — comets and asteroids — that could imperil Earth. In 2005, Congress directed NASA to locate 90 percent of NEOs 140 meters or more in diameter within 15 years, but finding such small, dark objects is challenging. NASA’s planetary defense experts estimate they will not be able to complete that task for another 30 years without NEO Surveyor. Even with the NEO Surveyor it will take another 10.

The program was on track for launch in 2026, but NASA is proposing a sharp funding cut and a delay of at least two years because of budget constraints. The request is just $39.9 million compared to the $174.2 million NASA projected last year would be needed in FY2023. The launch date would slip from 2026 to at least 2028.

The committee disagreed with NASA’s proposal, noting that not only does the mission implement a congressional directive, but the new Decadal Survey on Planetary Science and Astrobiology placed a high priority on NEO Surveyor. However the committee did not restore full funding. The new FY2023 total would be $94.9 milllion, about $80 million short.

The committee expressed concern about the growing costs of the Mars Sample Return mission to bring back the samples now being collected by the Perseverance rover, but did not change the funding and, in fact, asked for a report on the feasibility of launching more helicopters like Mars Ingenuity. Perseverance’s tiny companion has made 29 flights now, scouting ahead and flying over terrain too difficult for the rover to traverse. It was designed to make five.

The tiny (1.8 kilogram) Ingenuity helicopter on Mars.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS.

Another science program of note is the SOFIA airborne infrared telescope. NASA has been trying to terminate it for several years on the basis that its science return is not in step with the approximately $80 million per year cost. Congress has rescued SOFIA year after year, but this time NASA has the backing of the recent Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics.  Decadal Surveys, produced by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine every 10 years (a decade) for each of NASA’s science disciplines, have a lot of clout. The committee does not direct NASA to continue operations. Instead it provides $30 million in close-out costs, three times NASA’s request. The Universities Space Research Association operates SOFIA and issued a press release two weeks ago acknowledging the end is near.

The committee supports the Artemis lunar program including NASA’s $1.49 billion request for a Human Landing System (HLS), $291 million above FY2022, and applauds NASA efforts to ensure competition for future HLS systems. It fully funds the Space Launch System, Orion spacecraft, and Exploration Ground Systems, though it is concerned about the rising cost of Mobile Launcher 2, needed for a future version of SLS.  It provides $232 million for ML2, but limits its use until NASA submits a plan with a new cost and schedule baseline. NASA Admnistrator Bill Nelson has been harshly critical of the contractor’s (Bechtel) performance. Overall, the Deep Space Exploration account takes a bit of a cut compared to the request, though, $7.32 billion instead of the $7.48 billion requested.

The committee fully funds the Commercial LEO program at $224 million to help the private sector build space stations in low Earth orbit to replace the International Space Station by the end of the decade. HLS and Commercial LEO have been controversial in the past, but not this year, although questions remain as whether the requested funding levels are sufficient to ensure success.

In the Space Technology account, as usual the committee provided $110 million for nuclear thermal propulsion (the request was $15 million according to the committee) and fully supported the $227 million request for the RESTORE-L/On-orbit Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing-1 (OSAM-1) program. However, Space Technology overall is cut from the request of $1.44 billion to $1.25 billion even though the committee specifies additions for other activities including $15 million for nuclear electric propulsion, $40 million for lunar surface power, an additional $10 million above the $20 million requested for the Flight Opportunities Program, and up to $5 million to advance technology for removing large (more than 10 centimeter) space debris from orbit. It also directs NASA to create a crowdsourcing prize competition soliciting ideas on detecting, tracking and removing small (less than 10 centimeter) debris.

Aeronautics gets a small cut from $971.5 million to $950 million overall, although funding for hypersonics technology receives a bit more ($6.4 million) than the request ($45 million).

The bill also continues the restriction on NASA, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the White House National Space Council from engaging in bilateral space cooperation with China without prior congressional permission. It is often referred to as the Wolf Amendment after former Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) who first inserted in it NASA’s appropriation bill in 2011. It has been included every year since.

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