House Appropriators Criticize “Ominous” Shift in NASA’s Priorities – UPDATE

House Appropriators Criticize “Ominous” Shift in NASA’s Priorities – UPDATE

The House Appropriations Committee is criticizing NASA’s “ominous” shift in priorities away from legacy programs and those with environmental and educational benefits to meet a “politically motivated timeline” for the Artemis program to put astronauts back on the Moon by 2024.  In its report on the FY2021 appropriations bill that funds NASA, the committee not only rejects the Trump Administration’s effort to increase NASA’s budget by 12 percent to pay for Artemis, but reallocates $1.5 billion to what was requested for science, technology, and education activities the Administration wants to reduce or terminate entirely. UPDATE:  The committee approved the bill on July 14, 2020.

As reported last week on subcommittee markup, the committee would keep NASA’s funding level at $22.6 billion, the same as FY2020, instead of increasing it to $25.2 billion as requested.

The committee minces no words in its explanatory report, released today, about where Artemis falls in its priority list.  It does not reject a return to the Moon.  Indeed, it provides $628 million for Human Landing Systems (HLS), fully funds the Orion crew spacecraft, and adds $400 million to the request for the Space Launch System (SLS).  But adequately funding science, especially earth science, and STEM education are more important.

NASA’s fiscal year 2021 request, much like the 2020 amended budget request, reflected the Administration’s ominous shift away from legacy programs with clear environmental and education benefits.  The Administration’s shift in priorities is most evident in its budget request of nearly $3,400,000,000 for the Human Landing Systems and Advanced Cislunar and Surface Capabilities initiative.  These programs are being rushed to meet a politically motivated timeline to again place humans on the Moon’s lunar surface in a little over four years.  In order to fund this massive expansion, the Administration chose to either reduce or eliminate many critical legacy programs, including Earth science programs that help monitor the environment, measure global climate change, and track rising sea levels.  — House Appropriations Committee

It lists three Earth science programs, PACE, CLARREO-Pathfinder, and the Carbon Monitoring System (CMS); the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (formerly WFIRST); and STEM education programs as examples of where its priorities clash with the Trump Administration.  Trump has been trying to kill all of those programs since he took office.  Congress rejects those proposals every year.

The committee provided $145.1 million for PACE, $24.5 million for CLARREO-Pathfinder, $10 million for CMS, $505.2 million for Roman/WFIRST, and $126 million for STEM Engagement.  The request for each was zero.  The Administration also wants to terminate an airborne infrared telescope, SOFIA, and requested just $12 million in FY2021 for close-out activities.  The committee provided $85.2 million to continue operations.

The Administration also requested zero for the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) to create a more capable version of the SLS called Block IB. It wants to defer development of EUS so its prime contractor, Boeing, focuses on finishing the current version, Block I, which is years late.  The committee, however, added $400 million and included language directing NASA to “undertake all work necessary in fiscal year 2021 toward completion of the SLS Block IB as though Block IB were in the critical path for Exploration Mission-3.”  That mission, which NASA now calls Artemis-3, is intended to be the one that takes the next crew to the Moon’s surface.  Using the EM-3 designation, which it had before the Artemis program began, could be a further effort for the committee to signal its support for a human return to the Moon, but not on the Artemis 2024 schedule.  That year was selected by the Trump Administration because it would be the last year of a second Trump term if he wins reelection in November. NASA had been planning to get back to the Moon by 2028.

The report does not specify how much the committee allocated for Human Landing Systems for Artemis, but NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted last week that it is $628 million, compared to the $3.4 billion request.

Despite the steep cut, he praised the committee’s action as a bipartisan expression of support for Artemis, especially since last year this committee provided zero for Artemis. The accelerated 2024 deadline was announced by Vice President Pence on March 26, 2019 after NASA’s FY2020 request already had been sent to Congress and thus did not include funding for it.  NASA later submitted a supplemental request, but only a few days before this committee acted on the bill. The Senate provided $744 million for HLS and the compromise with the House in the final bill was $600 million, which was also a bipartisan agreement.

The breakdown of the $22.629 billion recommended for FY2021 by the committee is shown in this table from today’s report.  HLS funding is part of the Exploration Research and Development line.

The committee will mark up the CJS bill tomorrow along with the bills for Defense and Transportation-HUD.  The bills and reports remain drafts until they are approved by the full committee.  UPDATE: The committee approved all three bills on July 14, 2020.  No substantive changes were made to the CJS bill.

The top Republicans on the CJS subcommittee and the full committee expressed their ire at the lack of complete support for Artemis and NASA as a whole during subcommittee markup last week. Subcommittee Ranking Member Robert Aderholt (R-AL) called the modest funding for HLS a “rebuke.”  Full committee Ranking Member Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX) assailed the level funding for NASA as a whole as “a deliberate effort to undercut our path toward renewed American space dominance.”

Amendments could be offered during full committee markup, although major changes seem unlikely at this point.  Challenges more likely might be made during floor debate, but in any case these are only the first steps in the lengthy appropriations process.

The committee plans to complete action on all 12 of the regular appropriations bills by Wednesday.  Seven are done already. The House returns for legislative business on Monday and is expected to take up these bills over the next two weeks. House leadership hopes to get all 12 passed before the August recess begins, but that is a daunting schedule.

The Senate has not acted on any of its appropriations bills and the schedule is unclear.  Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) planned to begin markups last month, but it fell apart when Democrats insisted on including money in the bills for policing reform and COVID-19 relief and Republicans objected.  The Senate also returns for legislative business on Monday, but no appropriations action has been announced.

It is widely expected that Congress will not complete action on the bills by the beginning of FY2021 on October 1 and a Continuing Resolution (CR) will be needed to keep the government operating.  The real question is whether the CR will last only until after the November elections or, largely depending on their outcome, into next year.  It is an important question for all federal agencies, but especially NASA with its goal to land people on the Moon just four years from now.


This article has been updated.

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