Nelson Defends Tough Choices in FY2025 Budget Request

Nelson Defends Tough Choices in FY2025 Budget Request

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson fielded questions from House Appropriations committee members today about why the FY2025 budget request includes cuts to programs in some of their districts. The answer was that budget caps imposed by last year’s Fiscal Responsibility Act forced NASA to make tough choices. While he understands why Congress had to agree to those caps in order to avoid defaulting on the national debt, the end result is that NASA simply cannot afford everything on its plate.

The hearing before the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee was generally friendly, but members representing areas hit by the proposed funding reductions defended their interests.

Rep. David Trone (D-MD) at House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee hearing April 17, 2024. Screengrab.

The testiest exchange was with Rep. David Trone (D-MD) whose district is near NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD. Trone is in a tight race for the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Ben Cardin. NASA announced on March 1 that it will “discontinue” Goddard’s On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (OSAM-1) project designed to demonstrate refueling a spacecraft — Landsat 7 — in low Earth orbit.

Trone said cancelling OSAM would be “catastrophic for science innovation” in Maryland and result in the loss of 1,200 jobs, 600 civil servants and 600 contractors.

The final FY2024 CJS appropriations bill directs NASA to spend $227 million on OSAM and “adjust the mission to assure a 2026 launch date within the cost profile assumed” in the FY2024 request.

Excerpt from report language in the final FY2024 CJS appropriations bill.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson testifies to the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee April 17, 2024. Screengrab.

Nelson replied that NASA will comply with the requirement to spend $227 million in FY2024, but the mission will end thereafter.

NASA’s FY2024 budget was cut by about $2.5 billion compared to the President’s request and is two percent less than what it had in FY2023. The FY2025 request would merely bring it back up to its FY2023 level.

“With less money, we have to make some very tough choices,” Nelson told Trone, and “your program is one of them.” As he said several times, Nelson stressed he understands why Congress agreed to the Fiscal Responsibility Act that required deep cuts to non-defense discretionary spending like NASA in return for suspending the debt limit. He said he would have voted for it himself if he was still in the Senate. (Nelson was a member of the House from 1979-1991 and the Senate from 2001-2019.) But resulting budget caps in FY2024 and FY2025 mean NASA will have to tighten its belt.

On top of that, Nelson continued, an independent review of OSAM concluded the project is 7-8 years behind schedule and the cost has more than doubled from $750 million to $1.6 billion. In the meantime, technology has changed and so has the market.  “In the parlance of the South, this dog doesn’t hunt.”

Trone did not seem mollified.

Rep. Mike Garcia (R-CA) at House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee hearing April 17, 2024. Screengrab.

Rep. Mike Garcia (R-CA) was similarly perturbed by cuts to the Mars Sample Return mission managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. He was one of many members of the California delegation who wrote to Nelson complaining about cutbacks earlier this year before the budget request was released that led to significant layoffs at JPL.  The effort was led by Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) whose districts include JPL. Garcia quipped that “it’s probably one of the only times I’ve agreed with Schiff” and been on a letter with him, a testament to “how deeply this cuts.” He warned of implications not only for science, but for national security if the workforce at JPL dips below “critical mass” and the loss of decades of institutional knowledge. “What’s the plan to make sure JPL remains relevant?”

Nelson just revealed NASA’s plan for the future of the Mars Sample Return mission on Monday. He is adamant about the importance of returning the samples being collected by the Perseverance rover right now, but in a timely and cost effective manner. NASA is seeking new ideas from industry, JPL and NASA civil service centers.

“I am quite sanguine about the future” of JPL and of Mars Sample Return, he replied. NASA is seeking ideas from many sources, but JPL Director Laurie Leshin “is very confident that they’re going to be able to come up [with a] proposal [that’s] going to be faster and cheaper.”

Garcia agreed that competition is good, but “I just don’t want to lose that crown jewel down in Pasadena.”

Rep. Joe Morelle (D-NY) brought up the future of the Chandra x-ray telescope, another program under threat of cutbacks. Operated by the Center for Astrophysics|Harvard & Smithsonian in Massachusetts, it was “partly assembled” in his Rochester, NY district at Eastman Kodak. He asked how the United States would continue to be a leader in x-ray astronomy if Chandra is terminated.

Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), Chair, House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee at April 17, 2024 hearing on NASA’s budget. Screengrab.

Nelson praised Chandra as “the mission that has given us so many gifts,” but is 25 years old and “it’s time for new missions.”  The budget realities facing the agency mean difficult choices must be made.

Competition with China came up again and again. Subcommittee chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) asked for specific examples of how the FY2025 request will “maintain the U.S. edge over China in space.” Nelson agreed we are in a race to get back to the Moon before China gets there in 2030 and that is what the Artemis program is all about. China also has a space station and “we just better not let down our guard.”

Nelson’s exchange with Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-TX) was even more succinct.

Gonzales: When will China become the global leader in space exploration?

Nelson: Well, if we have anything to do with it, they won’t.

Gonzales: That is exactly the right answer. And we have to make sure that China is never the global leader. The United States will always lead that way.

Many other topics were discussed. Nelson again urged Congress to pass the domestic supplemental appropriations bill that includes funding for the ISS deorbit vehicle and repairing Deep Space Network antennas on Guam that were damaged by a typhoon last year. At its quarterly meeting today, NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel made the same appeal.

Nelson also was asked about the status of the second Mobile Launcher, ML-2, for the Artemis program. The Space Launch System rocket for Artemis that will be used for missions beginning in 2028 with Artemis IV is larger than the version in use today and needs a more robust Mobile Launcher to transfer it to the launch pad. Nelson has been very blunt about his dissatisfaction with the prime contractor, Bechtel, because of cost overruns and schedule delays. Today he told Ranking Member Matt Cartwright (D-PA) that he’s been having “eyeball to eyeball” discussions with the company’s CEO. “They had really dropped the ball, but they have really picked it up and I am led to believe that I think they’re on schedule now.”

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