House and Senate Appropriators Keep NASA Basically at FY2023 Levels

House and Senate Appropriators Keep NASA Basically at FY2023 Levels

House and Senate appropriators are moving forward with their FY2024 NASA funding bills. The Senate Appropriations committee approved the Commerce-Justice-Science bill today and the House will mark up their bill at subcommittee level tomorrow. In keeping with the Fiscal Responsibility Act, their totals are about the same as NASA’s current spending level, far less than President Biden’s request. While these are just steps in a lengthy process, they signal the difficult choices that lie ahead.

The House committee is recommending $25.367 billion, just shy of the $25.384 billion NASA has now. The Senate committee is proposing $25.000 billion, a greater reduction from current spending. Biden requested a 7.1 percent increase for FY2024, $27.2 billion.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas)

Only some details are available today, but it is clear that bipartisan and bicameral support for the Artemis program is intact. The House committee provides the full amount requested for FY2024, $7.971 billion, more than half a billion more than the $7.469 billion for FY2023. The Senate committee isn’t quite so generous, but its $7.736 billion is still an increase.

During markup by the full Senate Appropriations Committee today, CJS subcommittee Ranking Member Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) acknowledged that the funding level for NASA is disappointing, “but at least we were able to protect the most important national priority within NASA’s budget, at least in my view, which is to return humans to the Moon and maintain our strategic advantage in space.”

Subcommittee chair Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) said the bill retains “the tools for NASA to return astronauts to the Moon including the first woman and person of color and to maintain U.S. leadership in space.”

Science does not fare as well. Neither the House nor the Senate match the $7.795 billion provided for FY2023. The House figure is $7.380 billion and the Senate $7.341 billion. Compare that to the request of $8.261 billion, which included almost $1 billion for the Mars Sample Return mission.

The Senate committee’s report has harsh language about MSR and provided only $300 million. The committee is “alarmed” that after providing $1.739 billion for MSR already, the schedule continues to slip and the “increasing fiscal and human resources” needed for MSR are causing delays in other science missions. It directs NASA to provide a “year-by-year funding profile for MSR” that stays within the $5.3 billion lifecycle cost outlined in the 2022 planetary science Decadal Survey by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

The Academies prepare Decadal Surveys every 10 years — a decade — for each of NASA’s science disciplines identifying the science community’s consensus judgment on the top scientific questions that need to be answered. Returning samples of Mars to Earth was the top priority of the last two planetary science Decadals, but the 2022 report cautioned against the potential for the cost to grow so much it would negatively impact other planetary science projects.

NASA is concerned about the cost of this NASA-ESA joint project, too, and recently appointed a second Independent Review Board to assess its progress and challenges. The Senate committee noted that it’s waiting for that report, but clearly does not want MSR to overwhelm everything else.

The House committee released its CJS bill today, but it provides just top-line numbers for NASA’s budget accounts and funding details only for a few specific programs, not including MSR. Hopefully more details will be available after subcommittee markup tomorrow. From what is known as of press time, these are the committees’ recommendations.

Moran painted the landscape for NASA pretty well. He is “a supporter of NASA and space exploration,” but because of the caps in the Fiscal Responsibility Act, NASA “will have significant challenges in continuing all their programs.  I’m disappointed by that. The science community and certainly NASA contractors, they will be disappointed in that as well. These deep and painful cuts were inevitable under the deal the Speaker [McCarthy] and the President cut.”

Senate appropriators have been stressing that they were not part of the negotiations over the Fiscal Responsibility Act and would not have agreed to it, but now that it is the law of the land, they will abide by it.

The Republican leadership of the House Appropriations Committee decided to cut nondefense discretionary spending, which includes NASA, even more than required by that law, capping total spending at FY2022 levels, not FY2023. The fact they are recommending funding close to NASA’s FY2023 level is good news, all things considered.

The recommendations from the Appropriations Committees are just that, recommendations. There’s a long way to go before anything is set in law. The bills have to pass their respective chambers and then the two sides of Capitol Hill have to negotiate a final package to send to the President’s desk for signature. Anything can happen, but it does seem clear that NASA has difficult choices to make because of House Republican determination to reign in the national debt by cutting nondefense discretionary spending while defense spending continues to grow.

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