Senate Appropriators Increase NASA’s Budget a Tad, But Not Enough for a Second HLS

Senate Appropriators Increase NASA’s Budget a Tad, But Not Enough for a Second HLS

The Senate Appropriations Committee released the FY2022 appropriations bill that funds NASA today, skipping over subcommittee and full committee markups as it did last year. The Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill provides $24.837 billion for NASA, almost the same as the request.  While it adds $100 million for a second lunar landing system, it is not enough to pay for two suppliers.

The Biden-Harris Administration requested $24,801.5 million for NASA in FY2022, a $1.5 billion increase over what Congress appropriated for FY2021. The committee’s recommendation of $24,837.3 million is $35.8 million above that request, a very modest increase.

The House Appropriations Committee recommended $25.04 billion, $240 million above the request. The House began but did not complete consideration of the bill in July.

Neither the Senate nor the House provide enough money to pay for a second Human Landing System (HLS) for the Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon. NASA is procuring HLS though public-private partnerships similar to the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs and, like those, wants two suppliers to ensure redundancy and competition.

For FY2021, the last year of the Trump Administration, which initiated the Artemis program, Congress provided only 25 percent of the money requested for HLS, unconvinced the goal of putting astronauts on the Moon by 2024 was feasible technically or budgetarily. At the time NASA projected a cost of $16 billion over five years for two HLS providers.

The Biden Administration embraced the 2024 goal, but for FY2022 requested just $1.195 billion for HLS instead of the $4.388 billion NASA said it would need in FY2022 to support two contractors for a 2024 landing.

Today, the Senate Appropriations Committee pushed back on NASA’s “rhetoric of blaming Congress and this Committee” for insufficient HLS funding. That complaint “rings hollow” since the Administration itself did not request the level of funding NASA said it would need.

The committee said it supports having two contractors and thus increased funding by $100 million, to $1.295 billion “to ensure redundancy and competition, including robust support for research, development, testing, and evaluation for no fewer than two HLS teams. The Committee expects real investments in development rather than additional studies.”

That is not nearly enough to fund two contractors in the near term, however. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has been hoping to get $5.4 billion in the infrastructure bill, separate from NASA’s appropriations, to pay for two providers although that is appearing less and less likely as Democrats weigh cutting back their aspirations for a $3.5 trillion deal.

The committee also said it “believes having at least two teams providing services using the Gateway should be the end goal,” an important signal that it does not prefer the option of the HLS and Orion spacecraft docking together in lunar orbit.

The Gateway is a small space station NASA is planning to build in lunar orbit with international partners as a transfer point for crews between Earth and the lunar surface.  Crews would launch from Earth on Orion spacecraft atop a Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and dock with the Gateway where an HLS would be waiting for them. HLS would taken them down to and back from the lunar surface. Once back at the Gateway, they would transfer into Orion and return home. When soliciting HLS bids, however, NASA left open the option of Orion and HLS docking together directly without the Gateway. That would provide additional flexibility in case Gateway’s construction was delayed.  NASA has shown some ambivalence as to whether the Gateway is needed for the first Artemis lunar landing, though it insists it will be necessary for sustained lunar operations later on. The committee provided $785 million for the Gateway, the same as the request.

HLS and Gateway are part of the Exploration Research and Development (ERD) account. NASA requested $2,396.7 million for ERD and the committee approved $2,356.5 million. Initially that looks like a roughly $40 million reduction, but NASA reorganized the management of its human spaceflight program after the budget was submitted. The $130 million Human Research Program was transferred to a different account, making the request for ERD $2,266.7 million. The committee approved almost $90 million more than that. It is still $10 million short of the $100 million added for HLS, but closer to the total request.

Until last month, all of NASA’s human spacefight activities including Artemis and the International Space Station (ISS) were under the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD). That now has been split into two — the Space Operations Mission Directorate (SOMD) and the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate (ESDMD).  Along with that, NASA is requesting that funding for the Orion program be split between development in ESDMD, and production and operations in SOMD. The committee approved the request to shift about half of the Orion money ($799.3 million of the $1.427 billion requested) into operations, but requires NASA to submit a plan for managing Orion under this new arrangement.

The committee also continued its strong support for the SLS program as originally envisioned by Congress in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, evolving from its current 70 Metric Ton (MT) version, Block I, into a more capable Block IB using an Exploration Upper Stage (EUS), and eventually a 130 MT version. It also encouraged, but did not direct, NASA to explore development of a lunar cargo version of SLS. SLS critics argue that commercial launch vehicles can handle any cargo requirements for lunar missions at substantially less cost.

For the first time, the committee approved all of NASA’s requested funding for development of commercial low Earth orbit (LEO) space stations to succeed the aging ISS. The House and Senate have criticized NASA in the past for not justifying its commercial LEO plans and provided far less funding than requested. For FY2021, Congress approved just $17 million of the $150 million requested. This time, the committee said NASA had “finally” provided a rationale and a roadmap and approved the full $101.1 million requested for FY2022.

The committee generally supported NASA’s requests for science.  One surprise is that it did not restore money for the SOFIA airborne infrared telescope. The Trump and Biden administrations have sought to terminate the SOFIA program, a joint effort between NASA and Germany’s space agency, DLR, but Congress has always rejected those attempts. The House Appropriations Committee did again this year, providing $82 million, but the Senate committee is silent on it. The administration’s argument is that the scientific value of SOFIA is not worth the expense in light of other priorities.

Overall, NASA’s science programs would receive $7.901 billion compared to the $7.931 billion requested: Earth science, $2,230 million; planetary science, $3,161 million; James Webb Space Telescope, $175.4 million; astrophysics, $1,400 million; heliophysics, $825.7 million; and biological and physical science, $109 million.

The committee cut the $1.425 billion request for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) by $175 million, but the $1.250 billion approved is still $150 million above the FY2021 level. However, like the House Appropriations Committee, it adds $110 million for nuclear thermal propulsion. NASA requested zero, so that will have to come out of other programs STMD planned to pursue.

The Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD) would get a small boost, from the $915 million requested to $940 million.  It is a substantial increase over the current level of funding of $829 million.

Congress has resumed the practice of allowing “earmarks” or “special projects” in Senators’ home states.  One of the requirements is that these requests and allocations be made public. For NASA, the total for these earmarks is just under $20 million.

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