Senate Appropriators Approve Far Less for HLS Than Needed to Meet 2024 Goal

Senate Appropriators Approve Far Less for HLS Than Needed to Meet 2024 Goal

The Senate Appropriations Committee released its recommendations for all 12 FY2021 appropriations bills today.  The Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill provides NASA with $23.5 billion, $1.75 billion less than requested. The House-passed bill keeps the agency at its current level of $22.6 billion, so the final compromise likely will be somewhere in that range. NASA’s request for Human Landing Systems (HLS) for the Artemis program was particularly hard hit on both sides of Capitol Hill.

One surprise is that the Senate bills will not go through either subcommittee or full committee markup and apparently not to the Senate floor, either.  Instead, the bills released today will form the basis of Senate negotiations with the House.

The top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT)), said he is “very disappointed” Senate Republicans decided to bypass the normal steps in the appropriations process, but agreed on the urgency to get the bills enacted before the existing Continuing Resolution (CR) expires on December 11.

The House has passed 10 of the 12 regular FY2021 appropriations bills, including CJS.  Today’s action was the first for the Senate.

In its explanatory statement, the Senate committee complained that the Trump Administration proposed cuts to a number of NASA programs expecting Congress would add the money back while at the same time asking for significant increases for the Artemis program to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024.

The committee did add money back for programs including the PACE earth science program, the Roman Space Telescope (formerly WFIRST), and STEM education programs. All were proposed for termination by the Trump Administration, apparently confident Congress would restore money for them since they proceeded apace nonetheless.

Funding them consumed $750 million.  Consequently the committee advised that “the shortfalls of NASA’s fiscal year 2021 budget proposal make it impossible to fully fund all of NASA’s  proposed activities. Going forward, NASA should refrain from requesting only part of the funding it requires to accomplish all of its missions.”

Particularly hard hit was NASA’s HLS program to develop the vehicles to land people on the Moon.  The Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and its Orion crew spacecraft that will get crews to lunar orbit have been in development for years, but now spacecraft are needed to get crews from lunar orbit down to and back from the surface.  The current plan is to develop these HLS systems as public-private partnerships with the contractors putting in some of their own money and NASA funding the lion’s share and promising to purchase a certain amount of services to close the business case.

NASA requested $3.4 billion for HLS in FY2021. The House-passed CJS bill provided only $628 million. NASA’s hopes were riding on the Senate, but it approved $1 billion, far less than what would be needed to meet the Trump Administration’s 2024 deadline.

Many considered that timeline unrealistic in any case for both technical and budgetary reasons. The lack of sufficient support in both the Democratic-led House and Republican-led Senate makes it clear that a crash program to get people on the Moon by 2024 — a date selected because it would be the end of a second Trump term if reelected — is not in the cards regardless of the outcome of the presidential election.

NASA’s efforts to facilitate commercial companies in building future space stations in low Earth orbit (LEO) to succeed the International Space Station also fared poorly. Last year NASA asked for $150 million and got $15 million. This year it again asked for $150 million, but the Senate committee recommended only $17 million. The House approved $15 million.

Overall, the committee approved $23.5 billion for NASA, $866 million more than FY2020, but $1.75 billion less than the $25.2 billion request. Major changes include the following.

  • Science: $7,274.7 million versus $6,406.5 million requested. The $928.2 million increase above the request includes funding for programs proposed for termination including the PACE earth science mission ($141 million to maintain its 2022 launch date), CLARREO-Pathfinder ($24.5 million), the Carbon Monitoring System ($10 million), and the Roman Space Telescope, formerly WFIRST ($505.2 million to maintain its 2025 launch date).  The Administration also proposed terminating the SOFIA airborne telescope. The number of its flights this year was severely impacted by COVID-19 and the committee said NASA should use leftover funding to keep it flying in FY2021. The committee continues to strongly support the James Webb Space Telescope and provides $414.7 million.  It also expressed strong support for the Near Earth Object Survey Mission (NEOSM) to launch in 2025, but did not increase the planetary defense budget commensurately ($156 million versus $150 million requested).
  • Aeronautics: $828.7 million versus $819.0 million requested.
  • Space Technology: $1,206.0 million versus $1,578.3 million requested. RESTORE-L gets $227 million “only to conduct and demonstrate the capabilities to refuel satellites in low Earth orbit using Landsat-7” and requires a report from NASA on how it will encourage commercialization of those technologies. Nuclear propulsion gets $110 million.
  • Exploration: $6,706.4 million versus $8,761.7 million requested.  The committee noted that NASA estimates $27.97 billion will be needed over 5 years to achieve the 2024 Artemis goal, of which $16 billion is for HLS. “These funds are in addition to more than $35,000,000,000” already provided for Moon to Mars. The committee supports landing people back on the Moon, but worries about the potential impact on other NASA programs and wants more information. HLS would get $1 billion, $400 million more than the committee provided in FY2020, but $2.4 billion less than requested.  The committee specifies $100 million of that is for the lunar lander office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, represented by  Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Richard Shelby. In the meantime, SLS gets $2,585.9 million, Orion $1,406.1 million, and Exploration Ground Systems $590 million. The committee adds $300 million for the SLS Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) for which NASA requested no funding. The bill continues to require NASA to use SLS to launch the Europa Clipper mission.
  • Space Operations: $3,988.2 million versus $4,187.3 million requested.  The committee supports maintaining the International Space Station with direct federal funding beyond 2025 until a viable alternative exists.  It endorses NASA’s “commercial LEO” efforts, but provides only $17 million and tells NASA to use it “to grow promising research across all industries and not one time novelty events,” like space tourism “which are not indicators of future sustainable expansion of commercial activity in LEO.”  The House approved $15 million.
  • STEM Engagement: $120 million versus zero requested. The Trump Administration has been trying to kill NASA’s STEM education programs since it took office, but they are very popular in Congress, which rejects the proposal every year. This time is no exception.  The Senate bill provides $48 million for the Space Grant program, $24 million for EPSCoR, $36 million for MUREP,  and $12 million for SEAP.
  • Safety, Security, and Mission Services: $2,936.5 million versus $3,009.9 million requested.
  • Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration (CECR), $390.3 million versus $539.1 million requested.
  • Office of Inspector General: $44.2 million, the same as the request.

The bill also continues restrictions on bilateral U.S.-China space cooperation.

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