Senate Appropriators Support Full NASA FY2023 Budget Request

Senate Appropriators Support Full NASA FY2023 Budget Request

The Senate Appropriations Committee released the “chairman’s mark” for all 12 FY2023 appropriations bills today. The committee approved NASA’s full request, $25.974 billion, although it made some changes to how that funding is allocated. Negotiations can now commence with the House Appropriations Committee, which approved half a billion dollars less than the request.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont)

The Senate committee’s chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), released the texts and accompanying explanatory reports for all the FY2023 appropriations bills today as he continues to recover from hip surgery after falling at his home in June. The 82-year-old Senator is retiring at the end of this Congress as is his Republican counterpart, 88-year-old Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL).

Regardless of which party wins the Senate in November’s elections, the Senate Appropriations Committee will have completely new leadership next year. Sen. Patty Murry (D-WA) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) are expected to take the top spots as chair and vice-chair depending on which party is in control.

So these are Leahy and Shelby’s final appropriations bills. They did not go through subcommittee or full committee markup. A similar procedure was used last year and the year before (when Shelby was chairman) because of internal Senate politics. But the bills can be used in negotiations with the House, much of which takes place behind the scenes in any case.

The Senate’s Commerce-Justice-Science bill provides the full request of $25,973.8 million for NASA, which is $1,932.5 million more than FY2022.

By contrast, the House Appropriations CJS subcommittee cut the request by half a billion, providing $25.45 billion, which still is $1.4 billion above the FY2022 appropriation of $24.04 billion.

The bill and accompanying report language support NASA’s efforts to return astronauts to the lunar surface and go on to Mars, continue the International Space Station and facilitate new destinations in low Earth orbit, and NASA’s science and technology programs, all of which “should be viewed as complementary pieces of a balanced whole.”

NASA is pursuing many of its activities today as Public-Private Partnerships where companies retain ownership of new systems and NASA simply purchases services from them. The committee, however, tells NASA to “seek, to the extent practicable, to retain public ownership of technologies, scientific data, and discoveries made using public funds.”

The committee points to reports from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that show NASA’s performance in managing its program deterioriating for the sixth year in a row. It directs NASA to “cooperate fully” with GAO and “work expeditiously” to address its recommendations. It also chastises NASA for not complying with previous instructions to provide information on the level of reserves it assumes when budgeting programs and directs it to immediately do so.

But overall the committee is entirely supportive of NASA, with a few increases and decreases for various programs.

Illustration of the NEO Surveyor asteroid-hunting space telescope. Credit: University of Arizona

For example, the committee doubles requested funding for the Near Earth Object Surveyor mission in the planetary science account. NASA’s proposal to sharply cut funding for NEO Surveyor and delay launch from 2026 to 2028 raised congressional eyebrows.  The space telescope’s purpose is to find asteroids that might threathen Earth. The effort responds directly to existing law requiring NASA to do just that, the 2005 George E. Brown Near-Earth Object Survey Act. The request is $39.9 million compared to the $174.2 million NASA projected last year would be needed in FY2023 to meet a 2026 launch date. Whether doubling the $39.9 million is enough remains to be seen, but the committee says it “welcomes NASA’s commitment to a 2026 launch date.” The House Appropriations Committee boosted funding for NEO Surveyor to $94 million.

The committee also expresses dismay about NASA’s decision to delay the Mars Sample Return launch from 2026 to 2028 even though it provided all requested funding previously. It again approves the requested amount, $822.3 million, and directs NASA to provide a year-by-year funding profile for the 2028 launch “along with any guardrails it has put in place to ensure that MSR does not continue to grow in cost while incurring launch delays.” The committee also expresses support for using Ingenuity-class helicopters to retrieve Mars samples as NASA just announced yesterday, but adds it should be done “within the overall cost and schedule profile for MSR.”

Among the notable changes in the human spaceflight accounts, the committee says that maintaining redundancy for commercial crew launches “may require more than two service providers” and adds $50 million for “certification activities necessary to allow NASA to bring on another commercial crew provider.” That may be aimed at Sierra Nevada and its Dream Chaser spacecraft, which lost out to SpaceX and Boeing for the commercial crew contracts in 2014. It continued development of Dream Chaser nonetheless starting with an uncrewed version that in 2016 was added as a third commercial cargo provider for ISS. A crewed version of Dream Chaser remains in development for use with the Orbital Reef commercial space station.

Orbital Reef is one of the Commercial LEO Destination (CLD) proposals under consideration as successors to the ISS. The committee fully funds NASA’s $244 million request for CLD this year, but cautions the money should be used to solve supply problems, not demand. It should not fund “novelty events” or projects for “marketing, advertising, or entertainment.”

The committee “eagerly awaits” the uncrewed Artemis I test launch, but worries about potential delays to crewed flights. It provides a bit more for SLS ($2.6 billion versus $2.58 billion) and Exploration Ground Systems ($799 million instead of $750 million) and “encourages” NASA to consider a cargo version of SLS. The committee continues to support the more capable SLS Block 1B with an Exploration Upper Stage and associated Mobile Launch Platform-2 (more commonly known as Mobile Launcher-2 or ML-2). Within the funding for SLS, $600 million is designated for EUS and $281.35 million of the $799 million for EGS is for ML-2. The ML-2 funding is $49.25 million more than the request, but half what NASA says it needs to cover recent cost increases. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson slammed ML-2 contractor Bechtel during his testimony to the subcommittee in May for underbidding the contract and now expecting NASA to pay more.  The committee is waiting for the outcome of an ongoing review and wants to hear from NASA afterwards what is needed.

The committee provides the full request for Human Landing Systems, $1,485.6 million, and expressed support for at least two HLS providers.

In summary, the committee approved:

  • Science: $8,045.7 million, compared to the $7,988.2 million requested.
    • Earth Science: $2,346.1 million ($2,411.5 million requested)
    • Planetary Science: $3,209.8 million ($3,160.2 million requested), including increase for NEO Surveyor (see above)
    • Astrophysics: $1,561.0 million ($1,556.0 million requested)
    • Heliophysics: $828.4 million ($760.2 million requested)
    • Biological and Physical Sciences: $100.4 million (same as request)
  • Aeronautics: $971.5 million (same as request)
  • Space Technology: $1,263.9 million ($1,437.9 million requested), including $227 million for OSAM-1 and $110 million for nuclear thermal propulsion
  • Exploration: $7,547.8 million ($7,478.3 million requested)

  • Space Operations: $4,293.5 million ($4,266.3 million requested)
  • STEM Engagement: $150. 1 million (same as request)
  • Safety, Security and Mission Services: $3,228.7 million (same as request)
  • Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration: $424.3 million (same as request)
  • Office of Inspector General: $48.4 million (same as request)

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