Revised Reconciliation Bill Pares NASA Funding, But More Than $1 Billion Remains

Revised Reconciliation Bill Pares NASA Funding, But More Than $1 Billion Remains

Congress continues to debate the two infrastructure bills that form the basis of President Biden’s domestic agenda. The bigger of the two, for “human infrastructure,” included $4.4 billion for NASA in the original House version, but push-back by moderate and progressive Democrats is forcing the total $3.5 trillion package to be cut in half. The latest verison, which still faces headwinds in the House, reduces NASA’s share to $1.1 billion. All things considered, that is still an achievement.

Not too many months ago NASA Administrator Bill Nelson hoped to get as much as $15.7 billion through the infrastructure bills, which are separate from appropriations and on top of whatever money NASA will get through its usual funding process. Part of that, $5.4 billion, was to fund a second Human Landing System (HLS), with another $5.4 billion for fixing or modernizing physical infrastructure at NASA facilities across the country and the remainder for lunar spacesuits and nuclear propulsion.

The smaller bill, which has bipartisan support, would spend about $1 trillion on roads, bridges, railways and other physical infrastructure needs. No money for NASA is included in that one.

The human infrastructure bill funds social programs and investments to combat climate change. It has no Republican support so Democrats are trying to pass it through a budget procedure called reconciliation that cannot be filibustered in the Senate.

In writing its portion of the reconciliation measure, the Build Back Better Act (H.R. 5376), the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee recommended $4.4 billion for NASA: $4.0 billion for fixing and modernizing aging facilities at NASA’s centers across the country, $388 million for climate change research and development, and $12 million for associated activities in information technology and cybersecurity and oversight by NASA’s Inspector General ($7 million and $5 million, respectively).

The White House and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have been fighting members of their own party to reach agreement, so far without success. Before leaving yesterday for the G-20 Summit in Rome and the COP26 climate meeting in Glasgow, Biden personally met with House Democrats hoping to convince them to vote for a package that was scaled back from $3.5 trillion (over 10 years) to $1.75 trillion. But progressives are blocking passage nonetheless.

As of now, the $1.75 trillion version of the reconciliation bill includes $1.115 billion for NASA.

  • $750 million to repair or modernize NASA facilities
  • $140 million for climate change research and development
    • $85 million for R&D-related activities
    • $30 million for associated data management and processing
    • $25 million for R&D to support wildfire fighting operations
  • $225 million for R&D on sustainable aviation

As a press briefing today prior to Sunday’s scheduled launch of the Crew-3 mission to the International Space Station, Nelson was upbeat even though the funding is far less than what was on his wish list.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson at a briefing prior to the Crew-3 launch. October 29, 2021. Screengrab

Congress just appropriated $321.4 million to pay for hurricane damage at NASA’s facilities from 2020’s Hurricane Zeta and this year’s Hurricane Ida as part of the Continuing Resolution. Adding that to the $1.115 billion the agency could get through reconciliation, Nelson exclaimed that the extra $1.5 billion isn’t bad.

If in fact that bill passes, and my expectation is that it will pass, then what you have is a total of about a billion and a half dollars for NASA, some of which is infrastructure, a billion and a half dollars that NASA did not have before. That is a considerable positive. In addition, in there … is climate change and of course that’s one of our top agenda items as well. … A billion and half dollars to the good. I think that’s pretty good for NASA.

None is for HLS, though. Nelson wanted another $5.4 billion to fund a second provider. The agency wants two to ensure redundancy and competition, but could select only one, SpaceX, because Congress provided just 25 percent of the requested funding for FY2021. The decision is being fought in court by Blue Origin and the program is on hold during that process, but more fundamentally the question is how much money Congress is willing to provide for landers.  NASA’s Orion spacecraft will take astronauts only as far as lunar orbit. The landers are needed to get down to and back from the surface.

Nelson said today there will be a big boost for human lunar landers in next year’s (FY2023) budget request. “That’s what we’ve been working with the Office of Management and Budget.”

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