NASA’s FY2025 Budget Request Stuck at FY2023 Level

NASA’s FY2025 Budget Request Stuck at FY2023 Level

President Biden’s request for NASA in FY2025 is far short of the increases he has asked for in the past, reflecting the realities of the budget caps in last year’s Fiscal Responsibility Act. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson remained upbeat today, however, stressing that those caps are only for two years, FY2024 and FY2025. He is looking forward to FY2026 and beyond. For now, however, the FY2025 request is $25.384 billion, the same as FY2023 and two percent more than the FY2024 appropriation.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson presenting his “State of NASA” address at NASA HQ, March 11, 2024. Screengrab.

Congress only passed NASA’s FY2024 budget on Friday and Biden signed it into law on Saturday.

The results were disappointing for NASA, with agency funding cut not only from Biden’s request ($27.185 billion), but 2 percent less than FY2023: $24.875 billion for FY2024 versus $25.384 billion in FY2023.

The FY2025 request is the same as FY2023, so 2 percent more than what Congress allocated for FY2024.

Factor in inflation and those numbers are significantly less than what the agency was planning one year ago when Biden’s request was for a 7.1 percent increase.

That was before the Fiscal Responsibility Act negotiated by Biden and then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy as House Republicans took control of the House and demanded deep cuts to federal spending in return for suspending the debt limit.

Heralding the bipartisan support NASA enjoys in both Congress and the Administration, today Nelson portrayed the FRA as the result of “partisan political gridlock” that otherwise could have led to the United States defaulting on its debt.

“We have great advocates,” he said today during his State of NASA address, but last year a “small group” in the House “held up the passage of the legal means of avoiding national financial default in order to get their way to have lower spending.” NASA was one of the agencies that “got caught” because the cuts were aimed at the non-defense discretionary portion of the budget, not at defense or entitlement programs like Social Security.

“We will continue to do everything in our power to fight to increase our funding when we get out of this two-year period and the caps are lifted in fiscal year ’26.”

Meanwhile, however, the agency will have to cope with much less than planned. A year ago, the projection was for NASA’s FY2025 budget to be $27.7 billion.

Source: NASA FY2025 budget documentation.

Just about every NASA program will be affected.  Although the Artemis program to return humans to the Moon clearly is top priority for both Congress and the Administration, a new schedule released today shows a one-year slip for the third landing mission, Artemis V. That will be the first to use Blue Origin’s Human Landing System, Blue Moon.

Source: NASA FY2025 budget documentation.

During an interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes program last week, Blue Origin Senior Vice President for Lunar Permanance John Couluris said Blue Moon would be ready by 2029, but it appears they will have a bit more time.

The request for the Exploration program, which includes NASA’s own Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, the public-private partnerships with SpaceX and Blue Origin for Human Landing Systems and Axiom Space for lunar spacesuits, Exploration Ground Systems, and other aspects of the Moon to Mars program, is $7.6 billion, about the same as what Congress appropriated for FY2024 and quite a bit less than the $8.1 billion projected in last year’s budget runout.

Last year, NASA requested funding for the first time for a Deorbit Vehicle to safely dispose of the International Space Station at the end of its lifetime around 2030 by sending it into the Pacific Ocean.  NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel has been adamant about the need to build that vehicle immediately, but the final FY2024 appropriations doesn’t mention it. Worried that it might not make it into the regular appropriations bill, Nelson got funding included in the Administration’s domestic supplemental request last fall. No action has occurred on that request yet (which is separate from the national security supplemental with funding for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan), but Nelson said today he remains optimistic it could get through. The FY2025 request includes $109 million for the Deorbit Vehicle.

NASA’s science programs, especially planetary science, also are getting a lot of attention.  Science suffered the deepest cuts in the final appropriation, more than $900 million from the $8.3 billion request. All the science disciplines were cut compared to the request, but most at least stayed at their FY2023 levels. Not planetary science, however, which dropped from a FY2024 request of $3.4 billion to $2.7 billion, compared to the $3.2 billion in FY2023.

The planetary science request for FY2025 is the same as the final FY2024 appropriations, $2.7 billion.

One of the most expensive programs in that part of NASA’s budget is the Mars Sample Return mission to bring back to Earth the samples now being collected on Mars by the Perseverance rover. An Independent Review Board last fall estimated the cost at $8-11 billion. An internal NASA group called MIRT — Mars Sample Return Independent Review Board Response Team — is expected to make recommendations to NASA leadership at the end of this month as to how to proceed with MSR.

Until then, the budget request for MSR is listed only as “TBD.”  Nicky Fox, head of the Science Mission Directorate, told reporters during a media telecon this afternoon that whatever decision is made after MIRT reports, the $2.7 billion top line for planetary science will not change. Any money added for MSR will have to be reallocated from other programs. Planetary Science Division Director Lori Glaze told the planetary science community the same thing tonight at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC).

Source: NASA’s FY2025 budget request documentation.

NASA is requesting funding for other Mars missions, however. In addition to continued operations of the NASA rovers and orbiters already there, the agency is requesting $49 million in FY2025 as the first tranche of funding to replace Russia as the European Space Agency’s partner on the Rosalind Franklin rover. ESA’s collaboration with Russia on what was then called ExoMars collapsed when Russia invaded Ukraine just months before the mission was to be launched. The rover is built, but ESA needs to replace the radioisotope heaters, landing descent engines, and launch that Russia was to provide. NASA and ESA are eager to work together to complete the mission, for which NASA already has built an instrument, the Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer (MOMA).

Overall, however, NASA faces tough choices. For example, the budget shows a sharp drop in funding for the Chandra X-ray space telescope in FY2025 and beyond. Other space telescopes are holding their own — Hubble in the visible wavelengths, James Webb in the infrared, the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, also infrared, getting ready for launch in 2027, and planning for the infrared-visible-ultraviolet Habitable Worlds Observatory for the 2030s, but there are no current plans for another U.S. X-ray telescope. Chandra is the only one.

The same is true throughout the budget, but NASA’s message today was to focus on all that the agency is doing, not on what it cannot do, at least for now, because of budget constraints. As Nelson said during the meeting with reporters, NASA makes the impossible possible.

The thing is that NASA makes do with whatever we’re given. This is an agency where impossible becomes possible. The NASA family is ready to go.  — Bill Nelson

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