House Appropriators Add Nod to 2024

House Appropriators Add Nod to 2024

The House Appropriations Committee approved the FY2022 funding bill for NASA today. No changes were made to the recommended funding levels, but a few modifications to language in the accompanying report were adopted. It still does not explicitly endorse the goal of putting astronauts back on the Moon by 2024, but now at least contains a nod in that direction.

The committee is recommending $25.04 billion for NASA, an increase of $1.77 billion more than FY2021 and $240 million more than President Biden requested.

The Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill funds NASA, NOAA, the National Science Foundation, and the Departments of Commerce and Justice. During an almost four-hour mark up session, many amendments were debated, but only two were approved.

Rep. Ben Cline (R-VA) introduced an amendment that specifies that of the $110 million provided for Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP), $80 million is for the design of a flight demonstration project. CJS subcommittee Ranking Member Robert Aderholt (R-AL) complained during subcommittee markup on Monday that the language was omitted even though it had been in prior year bills.

Cline’s amendment was adopted by voice vote with little discussion. He represents Lynchburg, VA, home to BWX Technologies, which just won one of three NASA/DOE contracts for NTP reactor design contracts. NASA’s NTP program is managed by Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, near Aderholt’s district.

The committee also approved a manager’s amendment by voice vote. Manager’s amendments are routinely used when marking up legislation. They bundle changes that are technical or non-controversial into a single package that is pre-approved by both parties.

Three of the changes in this one affect language about NASA not in the bill itself, but in the accompanying explanatory report. Report language is advisory and not legally binding, but agencies are well advised to follow it.

One encourages NASA to fund the On-orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing-2 (OSAM-2, Archinaut) “at not less than the requested level.” OSAM-2 is managed by Marshall Space Flight Center and the team includes Made in Space, Northrop Grumman, NASA’s Ames Research Center, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  Another directs that NASA spend not less than $39.4 million for NASA’s Independent Verification and Validation (IV&V) program and “if necessary, NASA is directed to fund additional IV & V activities from within the mission directorates that make use of IV & V services.” NASA’s Katherine Johnson IV&V Facility is in Fairmont, West Virgina.

But perhaps the most significant change is to report language about the Human Landing System (HLS) for the Artemis program both because it is more modest than what was expected to be proposed and because it mentions the 2024 date for getting astronauts back on the Moon. Congress has not endorsed that deadline, originally set by the Trump Adminsitration and embraced by President Biden. This language does not specifically endorse it either, but urges NASA to improve the chances of meeting that date.

Prior to today’s markup, Aderholt circulated an amendment that proposed adding extensive language to the bill requiring NASA to have a second HLS contractor, use the Space Launch System (SLS) Block 1B to launch it on a demonstration mission, and proceed with additional enhancements to the SLS program.

He did not introduce the amendment today, however. Instead, he and subcommittee chair Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA) agreed to change the paragraph in the report about HLS. The draft made no mention of 2024 and the $150 million the committee added is not sufficient to have a second HLS system ready in that time frame even though the committee clearly wants more than one.

The new text does at least get 2024 a mention. It is a small step for those intent on getting astronauts on the Moon three-and-a-half years from now, but it is a step.

Many remain skeptical, however, that 2024 is realistic for technical and budgetary reasons even if there is only one contractor. Trying to fund two just makes it that much more difficult.

NASA and Congress want two in order to reduce technical risk by ensuring redundancy and cost risk through competition. Last year, NASA estimated it would cost $16 billion from FY2021 through FY2025 to build two. It requested $3.4 billion for FY2021 alone, but Congress appropriated just 25 percent of that.

NASA’s FY2022 HLS budget request of $1.195 billion assumes only one, but NASA Administrator Bill Nelson is among those eager to have two. He is trying to get $5.4 billion for HLS added to the infrastructure/jobs bill to pay for the second HLS rather than trying to get it through regular appropriations. The Senate is working on a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and a $3.5 trillion Democratic budget blueprint that some call “human infrastructure,” but the details have not been released to know if HLS is included in either of them.

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