No 12 Percent Increase for NASA As House Appropriators Keep Agency At Current Funding Level

No 12 Percent Increase for NASA As House Appropriators Keep Agency At Current Funding Level

NASA’s request for a 12 percent increase in FY2021 to pay for getting people back on the Moon by 2024 was rejected by the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee today. The subcommittee’s recommendations were released this morning in advance of tomorrow’s markup. The agency is held to the same level as FY2020, $22.6 billion, instead of the $25.2 billion requested.

NASA is trying to deliver on the Trump Administration’s goal of putting “the first woman and the next man” on the surface of the Moon by 2024, the end of a second Trump term if he is reelected in November.  Called the Artemis program, the key hardware elements are the Space Launch System (SLS) which will launch the Orion crew spacecraft to lunar orbit where it will meet up with Human Landing Systems (HLS) to take crews down to and back from the surface.

SLS and Orion are being built under traditional cost-plus contracts with traditional aerospace companies. Boeing and Lockheed Martin are the prime contractors respectively.  SLS began in 2011, Orion in 2006.  They do fine in the bill.

HLS systems are being procured as Public-Private Partnerships where the government and the companies share development costs and the government guarantees to purchase a certain amount of services, but the companies retain ownership of the systems and can sell services to others.  It is modeled after the commercial cargo and commercial crew systems that support the International Space Station.  NASA awarded 10 month “base period” contracts on April 30 to three companies: a team led by Blue Origin (including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper), a team led by Dynetics (including Sierra Nevada and more than a dozen other companies), and SpaceX.  NASA plans to choose one or more of them to proceed into development by February 2021.

HLS does not do well in the bill.  Funded in the Exploration Research and Technology account, NASA requested $3.37 billion, but the subcommittee recommended just $628 million, similar to the FY2020 funding level that cleared Congress.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine issued a statement today acknowledging the agency has much more work to do as the bill winds its way through the Senate and the rest of the appropriations process, but cheered today’s action as at least representing bipartisan support for the effort overall.

Last year, the House Appropriations Committee included no funding for HLS. The approximately $600 million was in the Senate bill and agreed to in conference. In fact, the House committee completely ignored the Artemis program last year largely because it only had been announced at the end of March 2019 and  NASA’s FY2021 supplemental budget request was transmitted to Congress just a few days before the subcommittee’s markup.

Rep. José Serrano (D-New York)

With no congressional hearings this year on the FY2021 budget request because of the coronavirus pandemic, the views of the CJS subcommittee members are not on the public record.  Last year, however, CJS subcommittee chairman José Serrano (D-NY), made it clear that although he strongly supports returning American astronauts to the Moon, he is not convinced it is necessary or even feasible to do it by 2024. NASA had 2028 as its goal before Vice President Pence announced the acceleration to 2024 on March 26, 2019.  Serrano is not the only one questioning whether 2024 is possible, but supporters insist that having an ambitious goal is valuable in and of itself because it inspires the workforce and drives decision-making.

The subcommittee’s action is just the first step on the long road to a final appropriations bill, so is not the final word by any means.  Continuing Resolutions (CRs) are the norm at the beginning of a new fiscal year each October 1.  How long they last depends on many factors, but it is not uncommon in a presidential election year for CRs to last at least until after the election and into the next year if party control of the House, Senate or White House changes.  It likely will be many months before the final funding figure is known.

Still, being held to last year’s level in the opening salvo certainly must be a disappointment to Artemis supporters.

Among the other recommendations in the bill, the subcommittee again rejected the Trump Administration’s proposal to eliminate NASA’s STEM Engagement programs and to defer the SLS Exploration Upper Stage (EUS).  The Administration’s request for both was zero. The subcommittee provided $126 million for STEM Engagement and $400 million for development of the upgraded Block IB version of SLS including EUS “and associated systems including related facilitization,” plus $459.7 million for Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) “including infrastructure in support of SLS Block 1B missions.”

Other highlights in the bill include the following.

  • Science: $7,097.5 million versus $6,306.5 million requested
    • Earth Science: $2,021.8 million (the bill does not mention PACE by name, which the Trump Administration wants to terminate, but the funding level is $253.7 million above the request, presumably to continue it)
    • Planetary Science: $1,306.2 million, of which $403.5 million is for Europa Clipper, which must be launched in 2025 and a Lander by 2027 using SLS “if available.”
    • Astrophysics: $1,306.2 million (the bill does not mention WFIRST/Roman Space Telescope or SOFIA by name, both of which the Trump Administration wants to terminate, but the funding level is $475 million above the request, presumably to continue them)
    • James Webb Space Telescope: $423 million
    • Heliophysics: $633.1 million
  • Aeronautics: $819 million versus $831.9 million requested
  • Space Technology (“Exploration Technology” in the request): $1,100 million versus $1,578 million requested
    • $227 million for Restore-L/SPIDR
    • $110 million for nuclear thermal propulsion technology of which $80 million is for design of a flight demonstration mission
  • Exploration (“Deep Space Exploration Systems” in the request): $6,017.6 million versus $8,761.7 million
    • Orion: $1,400.5 million
    • SLS: $2,600.0 million, including $400 million for EUS and related systems and facilities
    • EGS: $459.7 million
    • Exploration R&D: $1,557.4 million
  • Space Operations: $4,052.2 million
  • STEM Engagement: $126 million versus zero requested
  • Safety, Security and Mission Services: $2,953.4 million versus $3,009.9 million requested
  • Construction, Environmental Compliance and Restoration: $419.1 million versus $539.1 million requested
  • Office of Inspector General: $44.2 million, the same as requested

Like Bridenstine, Commercial Spaceflight Federation President Eric Stallmer looked on the bright side of the subcommittee’s HLS recommendation. Calling it a “key first step” in the FY2021 budget process, he said CSF looks forward “to continuing to work with Congress to fund the HLS program and commercial partnerships” at a level to achieve the 2024 goal.

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